Health Advisory: Smoke from Regional Fires

November 8, 2018

Health Advisory 11.9.18 (updated 11.19.18)

Smoke from wildfires in Northern California has contributed to worsening air quality today, expected to last a few more days.

Persons impacted by wildfire smoke are advised to:

Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, and irritated eyes and sinuses. Substances released from fires far away, while very unlikely to cause any significant health hazards, can contribute to headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger shortness of breath and/or wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema or COPD.  

For most people, the conditions in the Bay Area remain unpleasant rather than dangerous.  However, elderly persons, children, and individuals with respiratory illnesses are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.

What if I must be outside?

First, reconsider: the only way to completely avoid potential health risks from both chemicals and particulates found in smoke is to avoid exposure, and wearing masks can not only feel claustrophobic, but can provide a false sense of security and cause harm if you rely on them for protection while continuing with regular activities.

If you MUST be active outside in smoky areas, consider use of a particulate respirator such as an N-95 to filter out some of the particulate matter.  These masks do not filter harmful chemicals found in smoke, and are proven to provide protection only if individually fitted by a trained provider, but can provide limited particulate filtration and comfort for those sensitive to the smoke.  They are NOT a substitute for staying inside.  Some may find a similar comfort from wearing a damp scarf or cloth over nose and mouth.  Note that simple paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire

A limited supply of appropriate “N-95” respirators are available from clinical staff at the Tang Center for students with heart or lung disease that put them at higher risk for more serious health effects. Our clinical teams have notified students seen at UHS who fall into this category that the Tang Center has a limited supply of masks and students can come to the Tang Center Urgent Care on 11/19 and 11/20  (1 per student, until supplies last). 

Instructions on how to wear masks can be found here.

What should I do I feel ill?

Minor symptoms such as irritated eyes and throat, nausea, headache, and mild cough are best treated by staying indoors and standard measures such as hydration, steam, ginger/lemon, and analgesics like acetaminophen.  However, those experiencing significant respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent cough, or wheezing should seek care.

Students who are unsure whether they need to come in or where they should go can call the UHS Advice Line at (510) 643-7197; when Tang is closed, the Advice Nurse Line is answered by our After Hours referral line.  Students may also call the 24/7 Nurseline at (800) 681-4065.

Tang Center Primary and Urgent Care staff can assess and treat minor symptoms related to smoke inhalation including asthma exacerbations requiring inhalation treatments.  See hours of operation.

Faculty/Staff should contact their physician or go to the nearest emergency room.

See also general information about smoke inhalation injury.