Should You Cancel Plans? Answers to Your Top Questions About Wildfire Smoke in Michigan

Smoke fills the sky reducing visibility Wednesday, June 28, 2023, in Detroit. The Detroit area has some of the worst air quality in the United States as smoke from Canada's wildires spreads southward. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

By Isaac Constans

June 29, 2023

We have answers to your questions about symptoms, masking, weekend plans, and when to see a doctor.

MICHIGAN—This smoke is no joke. As Canada continues dealing with more than 250 ongoing “out of control” blazes, Michigan’s hazy and health-impairing conditions could become a more regular part of day-to-day life. 

In the short-term, rain will help. But overall, the fires continue to burn and could pose an ongoing threat throughout the summer. Scientists warn this is a longer-term problem that we need to prepare for.

On Thursday, during a media call with reporters, Dr. Ikenna Okereke, an expert on lung disease and the vice chairman for surgery within Henry Ford Health, emphasized that reducing exposure is key—especially for those with chronic health problems or who may be older or pregnant.

Here’s what you need to know about staying safe while Michigan deals with dangerous air conditions.

What are the symptoms?

Immediate exposure symptoms are what you would expect: shortness of breath, cough, sore throat, and eye irritation. 

Most young, healthy people can tolerate a few hours of exposure without risking any severe effects. Vulnerable populations—those who are elderly, have respiratory or cardiovascular conditions, or are pregnant—and children may experience more serious symptoms.

There are also long-term effects of prolonged exposure for the general public that could have a far more significant impact on health years from now, should these conditions continue. In preliminary research, long-term exposure to poor air quality is linked to lung-related disease and other significant health problems. Some of the diseases brought on by poor air quality are irreversible.

Is this sending people to the hospital?

Yes. Some Henry Ford Health locations report an episodic uptick of visits for people with breathing problems, said Okereke.

Other hospitals across the state are reporting the same

When should you go to the emergency room?

The emergency department should be treated like a last resort, Okereke said. It’s the most expensive and often the least efficient treatment point in the health system.

If you have continued symptoms like shortness of breath or irritated breathing, first consider seeing a general doctor or specialist. In Michigan, many people have asthma and don’t know it. If you have trouble breathing, seeking a diagnosis could help.

If you need help now and can’t afford to wait, consider trying urgent care. Those services may be able to help with most problems.

But there are problems urgent care won’t be equipped to handle.

If you are struggling to breathe or cannot function at home and don’t have another health option, the emergency room is a safe place to go.

Treat the emergency room like a last resort, but go if you need to.

What should you do?

It’s not a long-term solution but with air quality as poor as it is currently, stay indoors with the windows closed and air conditioning blowing when you can. Consider the treadmill instead of a run. Or consider dining indoors instead of eating on the porch. Reducing exposure is the best thing you can do.

Also, weigh wearing a mask. While this is a smart decision for most individuals, it’s especially important for those in vulnerable populations. If you have COPD, asthma, and emphysema, masks can prevent those conditions from worsening.

The best type of mask is the type you can get your hands on. While an N-95 or KN-95 is the best protection, regular cloth masks will also reduce the amount of dangerous compounds and particles you breathe in.

Finally, if you have asthma, COPD, emphysema, or other chronic health conditions, have an action plan ready to go if symptoms develop. For many, that means keeping a rescue inhaler or oxygen nearby. 

What about the fireworks festivals around the state? Is it safe to continue with weekend plans?

This is news that no one wants to hear—but if you are part of a vulnerable population, strongly consider canceling your plans as long as poor air quality puts you at risk. Use this air quality index to judge how to proceed.

As of the time of publication, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy extended its statewide air quality warning through Friday and urged residents to practice caution this weekend.

If you go out to events, wear a good mask. And consider planning to stay for a shorter amount of time. When you feel symptoms, have an escape plan ready.

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