Staying safe in the 'new normal' of extreme weather

Published: August 17, 2023

Staying safe in the 'new normal' of extreme weather

By Michael Bernstein, MD

Earlier this summer, I was overwhelmed with media requests. The air was hazy due to wildfires in Canada and air quality alerts were urging people in our area to stay inside. As the associate director for pulmonary and critical care at Stamford Health, people were coming to me for advice – and I was more than happy to offer some guidance.

Luckily, the haze cleared in a few days, but these patterns of unusual weather events are occurring more frequently. Rising temperatures can intensify droughts, which raise the risk of wildfires, which can lead to more smoke and microscopic particles into the air. These pollutants trigger coughing or bouts of asthma, heart attacks, or even premature death for those with heart or lung diseases.

Rising temperatures also stimulate the production of pollen, ragweed, and other allergens, and can actually lengthen allergy seasons.

Yet, amidst these mounting weather extremes, you can still protect yourself by:

Paying attention to—and avoiding--events that trigger breathing problems.
Although being outside is generally good for the lungs, being inside is good for the lungs when being outside is bad. If the weather is bad, check the air quality alert on your phone as you would if you knew a snowstorm was coming. There is no need to check the air quality daily.

Going inside if the air smells toxic.
If you can taste or smell air pollution, then it’s definitely not good for your lungs. Many irritants, like gases and their particulate matter, are invisible to our eyes, so trust your nose.

Staying in well ventilated areas whenever you’re indoors.

Choosing the best day to venture outdoors if you’re facing a prolonged forecast of poor air quality.
We want you to exercise and walk outside, but we also want you to stay safe.

Avoiding going outside on hot, humid days. Stay in an air-conditioned space, especially if you know that heat and humidity affect your breathing.

Wearing a mask. Masks are like sunblock. People didn’t use to wear sunblock all the time, but now that we understand the association between exposure to ultraviolet rays and skin cancer, many do. The same goes for masks. Whether you’re painting your house, spraying your garden with pest repellent, operating machinery that emits oil or gas fumes, or simply taking a walk, a mask will block particulate matter and therefore protect you. Masks can also protect your lungs from frigid, dry winter air.

Covering your nose and mouth with a scarf before exposing yourself to freezing winter temperatures. Freezing winter air may constrict the lungs and lead to chest tightness, wheezing, and trouble breathing. If you must go outdoors during a super cold snap when it’s less than 10 degrees outside, then either wear a mask or wrap a scarf around your nose and mouth to warm your intake of air and make breathing easier. If possible, stay in a well-heated space until temperatures rise.

Keeping your medications, particularly inhalers, up to date. The worst thing that can happen when weather quality is poor is to run out of medication. It’s always good to keep your meds on hand.

Additional references

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