Protection From Forest Fire & Smoke Exposure

Photo of Sharol Tilgner
Photo of a forest on fire.

Constant Fire Smoke

For individuals like myself living in Oregon, we are living in the new normal of constant smoke. We have dealt with fires and smoke every summer here in the Willamette Valley, however, this year is REALLY bad. We have 20 fires raging in our state currently, so the level of smoke is no surprise.

I find although everyone is annoyed and some people are strongly affected by it, there are people simply ignoring it, and they have no idea how it is affecting their health.

What You Will Learn In This Article

  1. Why you should not ignore the smoke.
  2. What you can do to protect yourself.
  3. How you can support your body.

The Smoke Contains Toxins

Toxic Gases

All fires, including forest fires create toxic gases such as nitrous oxides and sulfur dioxide as well as particulate air pollutants. Fires emit carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, plus nitrogen oxides that along with sunlight will make ozone. Ozone is very hard on living tissue. Ozone from fires is at higher levels in the countryside than in cities, so country folk need to worry even more about ozone. It is thought that the pollutant nitrogen dioxide which is higher in cities, reduces the efficiency with which ozone is produced.

Fine Particulate Matter

Although the gases are an issue, the fine particulate matter is an even bigger health hazard. The fine particles in the smoke can penetrate deep inside your lungs. On its way there, it also penetrates into your nasal mucus membranes, and your throat. When you throat gets inflamed it can occlude the openings of your eustachian tubes leading to your ears, which causes plugged and even painful ears. These particles also cause burning eyes and a runny or stuffy nose. More serious matters are aggravation of asthma or other lung diseases as well as aggravation of chronic heart disease.


Sensitive People

Some groups of people are more susceptible to health effects from the smoke than others. These individuals will be those with heart or respiratory conditions as well as the elderly and children and even teenagers. People with diabetes are more affected as they often have underlying heart disease. Additionally pregnant women should be aware that the smoke affects both her and her developing fetus. However, everyone can be effected by the smoke.


Protecting Your Space

Staying indoors as much as possible with your windows and doors shut will help. Additionally, using air filtration units will help alleviate some of the smoke that comes through the cracks and gets indoors. Do not use air filtration units that generate ozone. People have asked me what I use as a filtration unit.  I use a simple filter made by Aireox that has a coconut fiber charcoal filter. Their carbon filters are useful if you are sensitive to environmental chemicals, although they have a few choices of filter types. Don't fry or broil food as it will add to indoor air pollution. In addition it is not wise to use the fireplace, or gas stoves ,or even candles. Definitely don't smoke. Lastly,  vacuum some other time as it spreads dust around and also adds to indoor air pollution.


The first thing to do is change the filter if it has not been changed recently. Next close the fresh air intake if there is one. A fresh air intake will pull smoky air from outside and bring it inside. Close the fresh air intake using the damper. Usually, the fresh air intake is located in your attic or ducted to the return side of the homes central air handler.

Bathroom fans and window box fans should be shut off. If you have a window box fan in the window it should be pulled out and the window shut if possible.

Protection Outdoors

If you have to go outdoors, use particulate masks labeled as N-95 or P-100 masks to filter out the particles. Make sure they fit tight and you use them correctly.


Exposure When Sensitive

For those of you who have already been exposed and have health effects from it, you need to evaluate if it is something serious or not. That is not something I can do for you in this blog of course, so if you  feel you have a condition needing attention, see a health practitioner right away. If you have a respiratory or heart condition that has worsened from smoke exposure, contact your health care provider immediately for guidance.

Healing From Exposure

For those of you that do not feel you have a serious condition but you have a stuffy or runny nose, irritated eyes, or you feel a burning sensation or general irritation in your throat and lungs, and or plugged ears, there are things you can do to support your body. First of course, you need to remove the cause of the condition. This means either don't go out into the smoke or at least wear a mask when you do.

Irritated Eyes

If you have irritated eyes, even a rag moistened in cold water can be soothing. If you have saline eye drops or a saline eye rinse this can be helpful to use to wash the eyes also.

Plugged Ears And Sore Throat

For those with plugged ears from the smoke, the reason your ears are probably plugged is that you also have an irritated throat and the inflammation has caused the throat tissue to swell and close over the openings of the eustachian tubes. These tubes drain fluid from your ears into your throat. When they are occluded such as happens during an inflamed throat, it causes pain from backed up  fluid. We want to decrease the inflammation and edema (excess fluid in tissues) in the throat and we also want to sooth and heal the irritated respiratory tract tissues. Treating the ears, and throat can all be done at one time.

Astringent Gargle Or Salt Water Gargle

You can use astringent herbs and/or salt gargles to decrease the edema. Removal of this excess tissue fluid will result in easing the pain in the throat and re-opening the eustachian tubes, unless the swelling is really bad, in which case you will need to perform the gargles repetitively at least 3 times per day. You can gargle more often if you wish.

I am sure most of you have used salt-water gargles on an inflamed throat during a viral illness. The same salt-water gargle will decrease inflammation from smoke irritation. In addition, or as another alternative, astringent herbs can be made into a hot  cup of tea and that too can be gargled. Both the salt and astringent herbs remove edema in the throat tissue and this will decrease pain from edematous tissues and help open the eustachian tubes.

Salt-water gargles are made with warm to hot water and 1 teaspoon of salt to one cup of water. I have to admit I personally use more salt, but be careful about overdoing the salt. Don't swallow it, just gargle it and spit it out. Salt in excess is unhealthy and in  excess has even killed folks.

Herbs Used For Astringent Gargles

Yarrow, Geranium, Sage, or Blackberry leaves/root are good choices for a gargle.   You can however use your own favorite astringent herbs. Geranium has the least taste to it. Blackberry does not taste bad and Yarrow is by far the strongest and might bother some folks. However, Yarrow also is a great anti-inflammatory and will help the throat tissue to heal faster. Although many people have Sage handy in their kitchen, don't use the old Sage in your spice cabinet that you bought 10 years ago. It is no longer good. It should be only one year old at the most. You might add some rose petals in if you have them as they are a bit astringent but also contain mucilage which will additionally leave a healing coating on the throat to soothe and help stimulate healing of the irritated tissues.

If your nose is stuffy, you will find that gargling with these herbs will also help to alleviate the stuffiness. You can even snort the herbs/salt-water into your nose to help alleviate swelling of the nasal tissues by direct application. For people who have neti pots, you can use the neti pot for this application.

Respiratory System Support

To support your entire respiratory system, including your irritated throat and lungs, consider the following:

  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Eat healthy food that includes a lot of fresh organic vegetables and fruits and getting healthy oils, such as in the form of nuts and seeds or cold water fish.
  • Lay off of recreation drugs and any other vices that might not support your body.
  • You can also use demulcent herbs which are herbs that are known to be soothing and healing to the respiratory tract.
    • Marshmallow
    • Plantain
    • Licorice
    • Slippery elm

I would give you a few words of caution here. Everything has its good and bad side to it. Marshmallow and Slippery elm are both VERY mucilaginous. They should be taken with lots of water. Please see the contraindications for mucilage below. Licorice will cause your body to hold onto water, which is good for some people but not so good for others.  It should not be consumed by people with some types of heart disease, liver disease or kidney disease that causes them to hold water in their body. No one with high blood pressure should take Licorice unless under the supervision of a practitioner who advises it. I will list the contraindications below for Licorice too. For directions on how much of each herb to use  in a cup of tea, you can go to Herbs by Common Name and look each of the herbs up. If you need directions for how to make the tea, you can go to Herbal Tea Making. Another method of using mucilaginous herbs is to use them as lozenges. Most health food stores sell slippery elm lozenges that can be sucked on to slowly release their healing powers. It is also easy to make a mucilaginous lozenge in your kitchen.


A Healing Tea Combination

One last herb I would mention is Calendula. Calendula will assist in removal of the particles in the lungs, but it does this by irritation, so it might be too much for some people if their lungs are really irritated. If so, stop using it and use  the demulcents by themselves. However, it can help to increase the amount of mucus that the lungs are producing and thereby help to remove the particles from your lungs. Additionally, it is an anti-inflammatory and healer of tissues. It will help heal the irritated respiratory tract tissues. You can make a nice tea mix of Calendula, Marshmallow and Licorice tea. If you have high blood pressure or edema, leave the Licorice out. It is best to make the Calendula as an infusion and the two roots (Marshmallow and Licorice) as a decoction as described in the tea making section of this website. I would suggest 50% Marshmallow, 30% Calendula and 20% Licorice as a general anti-inflammatory and healing tea for the respiratory tract.


Mucilage contraindications

Mucilage (especially in powder form) has caused esophageal obstruction. This can be avoided by mixing it in plenty of water and allowing it to sit until it has fully absorbed the water. If necessary, more water can then be added to make sure it is not too thick. If obstruction is a concern, it is also best to stay away from capsule or tablet forms. Don’t take mucilage with other herbs, or drugs as it may decrease their absorption. Large, repetitive doses may also decrease absorption of other nutrients in food. It is best to take it separately from all other consumed products.

If your body is hydrated and you are using cut herb as opposed to powdered herb to make tea, and you follow the directions on the link for how much to use, you should not have any issues with the Marshmallow or the Slippery Elm as you are drinking them in a cup of water. Plantain (leaf) and Licorice do not have mucilage, so you don't need to be  concerned about mucilage in these two herbs. They also will not coat your throat as the mucilaginous herbs will, but they are still healing demulcents. The mucilaginous herbs coating your throat is definitely an added bonus to decrease irritation.


Licorice Contraindications

Licorice is contraindicated in high blood pressure, heart failure, left ventricular hypertrophy, kidney disease, liver cirrhosis and cholestatic liver disorders. The contraindication in liver stasis disease is due to choleretic action, although this action is minimal in comparison with other choleretic herbs. Chronic licorice use mimics aldosteronism by increasing sodium resorption and potassium excretion by the kidneys. This action is due to glycyrrhizic acid content. 185 deglycyrrhizinated (de-glycyrrhinized) licorice has been investigated for its clinical use and safety. Its use has been controversial. There is 2-9% glycyrrhizic acid (glycyrrhizin) in licorice root. The deglycyrrhizinated root extract has a maximum of 3% glycyrrhizic acid in it.

The toxic symptoms are hypertension, edema, hypokalemia, vertigo and headache. This ceases when it is withdrawn or by concurrent use of antialdosterone agents. Doses of 3 or more grams a day should not be taken for more than 6 weeks unless monitored under the guidance of a qualified health care practitioner. Elderly people are more prone to pseudoaldosteronism due to a greater increase of glycyrrhetinic acid levels from increased production by their gut bacterial enzymes on glycyrrhizic acid. 365 Licorice potentiates the activity of anthraquinone drugs or herbs containing anthraquinones, like cascara and buckthorn, by increasing the wettability of the bowel contents because of the high surfactant activity of glycyrrhizin. It also potentiates the toxicity of cardiac glycosides like digitalis due to potassium loss in the urine. There may also be an additive effect with thiazide diuretics as far as potassium loss in the urine. When used with corticoid treatment, glycyrrhizic acid interferes with delta 4, 5 beta-reductase breakdown of corticosteroids, thus prolonging its biological half-life. 404 When someone discontinues the use of licorice after consuming it over a long period of time, they should withdraw from it slowly, unless they are discontinuing it due to side effects. In the case of dangerous side effects, they should immediately withdraw from its use.

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