August 2023

Wildfire Smoke Side Effects: Do Any Natural Medicines Help?

Much of the Western United States deals with wildfire smoke throughout the summer months. This year, much of the East Coast is also being impacted by smoke from wildfires in Canada. Poor air quality is a major concern for those in affected areas. While no natural medicines can help treat smoke inhalation, some remedies might help combat certain side effects caused by the smoke. Help patients navigate what actually works and what to avoid.

Cough: Cough is a common symptom of exposure to wildfire smoke. Research shows that taking 0.5-2 teaspoons of honey at bedtime can reduce coughing in kids. It’s at least as effective as common OTC cough suppressants like dextromethorphan, and there aren’t any major safety concerns. But remind parents that they shouldn’t give honey to infants under 12 months old – doing so puts the child at risk for botulism poisoning. And it’s unclear if honey is beneficial in adults.

Irritated nasal passages: While it hasn’t been studied for smoke exposure specifically, nasal irrigation might benefit patients with irritated nasal passages. It works by flushing out mucus and allergens and often improves airflow. When done properly, it’s likely safe for most people.

Sore Throat: For patients battling sore throat, remind them that drinking hot liquids and soups might provide some relief. Lozenges might also help, particularly those containing slippery elm – it contains chemicals that have been shown to soothe sore throats. But research on other natural medicines for this purpose is limited.

Eye irritation: While there’s evidence that using eye drops containing castor oil and other natural ingredients might benefit people with dry eyes, purity and sterility can’t be guaranteed. Tell patients to avoid natural eye drop products. Instead, recommend drinking plenty of water to help keep the eyes moist throughout the day. You can also suggest washing the eyes with warm water or using lubricating OTC eye drops.

In general, tell patients that limiting smoke exposure is the best defense against any of these symptoms. It’s also the best defense against indirect symptoms that might develop from long-term exposure, such as headaches. Only facemasks with N-95 and P-100 respirators effectively filter air particles. These may be necessary for people with certain underlying conditions like asthma, COPD, and chronic heart disease. Remind patients that they should reduce physical activity when air quality is low – this will reduce the amount of pollutants that are inhaled.

Patients in heavily affected areas should remain indoors as much as possible and ensure air conditioners and air filters are properly installed. Humidifiers might provide some relief while indoors. But remind patients that humidifiers aren’t air purifiers and won’t reduce particles in the air. They can also circulate mold and other contaminants if not cleaned properly.

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