In the last couple weeks, Minnesota has been visited periodically by a heavy cloud of haze, courtesy of smoke from wildfires up near Canada, borne south on the wind.
It’s not a very common occurrence here, meaning unlike our friends and family out West, we Minnesotans don’t necessarily know what’s safe to do or not when the air quality is poor.
Since hazy air like this is expected all weekend and into next week (current air quality and forecasts can be found here, you can see all of Minnesota here), MinnPost asked Teddie Potter, director of planetary health at the University of Minnesota’s School of Nursing, some questions we’ve been hearing about how to stay healthy on bad air days.
Why is it bad to breathe in smoky air like we’re seeing?
The primary issue with the haze in the air right now is tiny PM2.5 particles. These particles are small, and when breathed in, can lodge deep into people’s lungs and into the bloodstream.
What are some of the issues people who are healthy might experience in poor air situations?
A day with very poor air quality is not a good day for anyone to be outside doing strenuous activity. AirNow.gov’s current air index does a good job of explaining which types of activities for people at different risk levels.
The side effects of inhaling smoke, even for healthy people, can include things like chest tightness or pain, a burning sensation in the chest or nose, eyes that hurt or scratchy throats, Potter said.
It can also cause inflammation in the lungs, which can make it harder to fend off viruses. This means people who haven’t been vaccinated against COVID-19 and are out inflaming their lungs by breathing in smoke may be at increased risk of the virus’ infection.
“Anytime your lungs become inflamed or irritated or sort of hyperactivated, you become more susceptible to infection,” Potter said.
What about for people who have asthma or cardiac issues?
For people with preexisting conditions that can be exacerbated by inhaling bad air, exacerbation of those issues is the concern. Someone with asthma, for example, might not ordinarily have an asthma attack doing a certain activity outdoors. Bad air could trigger that sort of thing.
What about babies and kids — and dogs?
Parents should take extra care with babies and kids on days with dangerously bad air quality, Potter said.
“Babies and children just do not have the capacity or the maturity of their lungs to clean them as effectively as we do,” Potter said. Plus, kids have a tendency to run around, which can make them breathe heavily.
“When you deep breathe, you get these little teeny micro particles down into the depths of your lungs, and that’s when you start to trigger inflammation,” Potter said.
Likewise, it may not be the best time to do heavy activities outdoors with your dog.
On a bad air day, you might want to choose a short walk over a long game of fetch or a trip to the dog park. Also consider that the dog can’t tell you it’s feeling tight-chested if it is feeling the effects of inhaling smoke, Potter said.
Should I reconsider plans to eat lunch outside?
“If people don’t have any underlying conditions, then they need to listen to their bodies,” Potter said. “If they’re just going to take a half-hour lunch break, sit out on a picnic table at their work, fine, but if you step outside the door and you’re already feeling a scratchy throat, cough, your chest feels tight, don’t have lunch outside.”
How’s the indoor air quality when the outdoor air is bad — should I even be working out indoors?
If you’re in a space that has filtered air, its quality is probably much better than the air outdoors. Rooms with lots of windows or old, drafty buildings are also less likely to have good air, Potter said. Again, listen to your body. And definitely don’t make the air quality worse by doing things like burning candles.
Is it a good idea to wear an N95 mask outside on poor air days?
For people with respiratory conditions, a mask could be a good idea, Potter said — if they’re wearing it correctly.
It’s also a good idea for people who have to be outside working for extended periods or people who, say, have a long bike commute to work.