Healthy Beginnings

5 ways to cope with smoke-filled air from Western wildfires

Smoke fills the skies above Reno the afternoon of July 31.

With wildfires burning across the West, the Reno-Tahoe region has been inundated with smoke the past several days.

Reports from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have the air quality fluctuating between “unhealthy” to “unhealthy for sensitive groups” with little relief in sight.

While older adults, children and those with heart and lung diseases are at the greatest risk when it comes to inhaling smoke-filled air, the gases and fine particles from burning trees and other materials can still hurt the eyes and irritate the respiratory system of even the healthiest person.

Here are five ways to reduce your exposure risk and keep your body healthy during these smoky months.

  1. Stay inside

It’s a no-brainer, but avoiding unnecessary time outside when smoke levels are high is key to keeping your body healthy during the fire season.

Symptoms of exposure can include chest pain, racing heart, wheezing, asthma attack, headache, sore throat or general lethargy, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Check the EPA’s Air Quality Index at to find out about health warnings in your area.

To limit smoke coming into the home, keep doors and windows closed and the air conditioner running, but with the fresh-air intake closed. Do not light candles or use appliances like vacuum cleaners that could create additional smoke or kick up particles.

  1. Take a steamy shower

If you must spend prolonged periods of time outside, take a hot, steamy shower when you return to get rid of the particles you may have brought in with you on your clothes and skin.

  1. Try a nasal spray

“Unfortunately, there’s not much one can do about avoiding symptoms associated with breathing smoky air besides staying out of it,” said Allison Steinmetz, MD, Internist and Pediatrician at Barton Health. “Using an in-home air filter while indoors or wearing a face mask when outdoors can help, as well as using saline nasal spray to reduce irritation.”

A saltwater (saline) nasal spray can restore moisture to dry nasal passages and reduce inflammation of mucous membranes. Some sprays also include ingredients like aloe or olive leaf extract for added relief.

A Neti pot or bulb syringe can also be used to flush nasal passages of unwanted particles.

  1. Use eye drops

Rinse red irritated eyes with clean warm water before putting in eye drops to soothe and restore moisture.

  1. Diffuse essential oils

Essential oils may help relieve certain respiratory ailments associated with wildfire smoke inhalation.

Many essential oil companies offer pre-mixed blends to support respiratory health, or create your own with oils like peppermint, eucalyptus, tea tree, lemon, and cardamom.

You can combine the essential oils with water in a diffuser, or add a few drops to an unscented lotion and rub on your chest and neck.

Claire Cudahy is a special assignments reporter for the Sierra Nevada Media Group; email her at with feedback.