This past week, my heart has been heavy with news of family and friends affected by the devastating wildfires in both Northern and Southern California. I figured that I should probably channel all of this nervous energy into something a bit more constructive, so here it is: a blog about naturopathic management of prolonged smoke exposure and respiratory issues.
Exposure to Smoke: a Really Big Deal
Although the biggest concern with wildfires would be the flames themselves, many more folks are affected by the exposure to smoke. Minor symptoms of smoke inhalation include stinging and irritation of the eyes, nose, and throat, while more severe symptoms appear as difficulty breathing (especially in those with preexisting asthmatic conditions), and possible heart attacks or loss of consciousness from improper oxygenation. The best plan of action is, of course, prevention, but other than evacuation, this may not be feasible. Protect yourself by staying indoors (bringing your pets inside, too), and constantly running a HEPA air filter to ensure the air inside is squeaky clean. Avoid generating additional airborne irritants; don't light candles or incense, fry foods on high heat, vacuum or kick up dust, use any type of air freshener, or light fireplaces or wood stoves. If you can get your hands on a face mask with fine particle filter (rated N95 or P100 and usually found in home improvement stores), utilize this as much as possible when going outdoors. Be forewarned, however, that these masks can slow the rate of breathing, so those with preexisting respiratory issues may not find these comfortable or helpful.
Tapping into Nature's Apothecary
So what should you do if you are experiencing symptoms? One basic, and now quite common, intervention is a sinus rinse/Neti Pot treatment. Rinsing the sinuses can clear them of particulate matter that has accumulated there with smoke exposure, and will keep them well hydrated, maintaining their protective barrier. If you've got some high quality honey on hand, you can also add a teaspoon of it to your warm neti pot rinse, which will soothe the mucous membranes and give you an antimicrobial boost.
For red and irritated eyes, consider a wash with a commercial saline solution, or try making your own herbal infusion. Start with freshly boiled distilled water, and add to it a handful of soothing herbs like calendula or chamomile. Once the water has cooled, strain it until it is perfectly clear, and use the "tea" as an herbal eye wash to calm any eye inflammation.
Sore and scratchy throats are very common with smoke inhalation. If you've got some natural cough soothers on hand like Ricola or Zarbee's, definitely suck on those for some soothing action. For a deeper heal, try slippery elm or marshmallow tea or lozenges, or my favorite: Traditional Medicinals' Throat Coat Tea. Just make sure to steep this tea, covered, for 10-15 minutes to thicken it and really bring out its demulcent properties.
If your symptoms include difficulty breathing, I would obviously recommend seeking emergency attention first! But if you've ruled out asthma or any other major respiratory issue, consider using herbs to take the pressure off your lungs. My favorite formula for smoke inhalation includes:
As an avid homeopath, I cannot stress enough how useful these little remedies can be with smoke exposure, especially in these specific situations:
Stay Safe, Friends
I hope this little rundown of some simple naturopathic interventions for exposure to smoke finds the people who may need it, and is helpful. Sending love and light to all those affected by these wildfires, and good wishes for your safety and health at this time.
About the Author
Sarah Ouano is a naturopathic doctor and writer. A fierce advocate for health equity and rights of the marginalized, she frequently writes about the intersection of naturopathic medicine and public health, throwing in personal anecdotes and tasty (and practical) recipes along the way.