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As Florida Wildfires Rage, the Dangers of Smoke Inhalation Increase

April 13, 2017

This blog was written in partnership with Eric Alberts, Orlando Health's Manager of Emergency Preparedness.

With more than 1,300 wildfires across the state this year, Florida is now in a state of emergency.

Drought-like conditions in Central Florida, in particular, have increased the risk for wildfires. While residents are rightfully concerned about their personal property and personal safety, they also need to be aware that wildfires come with another hidden risk: smoke inhalation.

Wildfires & Smoke Inhalation

There already have been 21 brush fires across Central Florida as of Monday and with no sign of rain in the coming week, there are likely to be more of them.

The fires already have led to road closures because of poor visibility and hazardous driving conditions, but these fires also pose a danger to specific groups.

Children, the elderly, pregnant women and people who you have heart or lung disease are at higher risk for smoke inhalation due to wildfires than the general population. People with diabetes also are at risk because they are more likely to have heart disease. The smoke from these fires can get into your airway and make it more difficult to breathe, creating a significant risk for people who already have chest pain, asthma and other respiratory illnesses.

Central Florida residents should know there are several fires surrounding the area. It’s important to not be fixated on where the wildfires are now, as the fires could spread into dry areas. The largest fires are near Orlando Health’s South Lake & Health Central and Dr. P. Phillips Hospitals, respectively. They burned as large as 300 acres, and even downtown residents reported seeing and smelling smoke — even in their houses where areas were unsealed. With no rain anticipated, we're still at risk. The groups I previously mentioned, along with people who have respiratory, sinus and allergy issues, need to take note of where there could be wildfires and plan accordingly.

How to Stay Safe

  • Avoid wildfire areas: If possible, stay clear of areas (and surrounding areas) where there are wildfires. Try to limit your exposure as much as possible, because the particles from these fires can get into your airways.
  • Abide by the burn ban: Officials in several counties have banned burning anything outside and placed restrictions on fireworks use.
  • If you live in a fire-prone area: Stay indoors as much as you can and talk to your health care provider about what you can do to reduce your risk. Stock up on non-perishable foods, as different forms of cooking can increase air pollution indoors. Also consider buying an air cleaner or air purifier to reduce the amount of particles inside your home.
  • Focus on indoor protection: Avoid using candles, wood fireplaces, gas logs and gas stoves and don’t vacuum, as this transmits particles inside your house. If you smoke, now is a good to time reduce your smoking or kick the habit entirely, as this can worsen pollution already in the air.
  • Check air quality reports: Watch your local news or check the websites of local news sources to find out about air quality conditions in your area. You also can look online for information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index.
  • Be Prepared: These fires are a good reminder for everyone to have a family emergency plan or emergency kit if they have to evacuate.
  • Get Medical Help, If Necessary: Smoke inhalation leads to swelling in the airways and bronchospasm, which occurs when the muscles inside the airway wall constrict. If you experience smoke inhalation, you also may have symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, vomiting and shortness of breath. You also may be at risk for pneumonia. Seek medical help right away. Physicians and medical staff in the ER can provide supportive treatment such as bronchodilators for wheezing and other measures to clear the airways and reduce secretions and mucus buildup in the lungs.

An informed person is a more prepared person, so pay attention to your local news and the advice law enforcement and other agencies share. Some roads may be closed and may not be safe to travel because of smoke. Residents also should be aware that they’ll smell smoke when they travel outdoors or may see smoke in the air. At times it will be thicker than others, especially in the morning or at night. If there’s fog or any kind of moisture laying low, that’ll also keep smoke low, which will make it worse for residents. However, even if it’s a clear day, you shouldn’t assume the smoke is gone. You don’t have to be next to or close to a wildfire to be affected by it, so take all the necessary steps to ensure your safety.