#childsafety | How Pregnant Women and Babies Can Stay Safe in Wildfire Smoke

The devastating wildfires in California, Oregon and Washington have burned through millions of acres of land and blanketed many parts of the West coast in a thick haze of smoke.

Air quality in several areas is listed as “hazardous” or “very unhealthy,” according to data from AirNow, a government-managed air quality organization. World air quality monitoring agency IQAir currently lists Portland as having the worst air quality in the world, and people in many areas are being urged by public health officials to stay indoors as much as possible and limit outdoor activities.

If you’re pregnant or have a small child and live in one of these affected regions, it’s understandable that you’d have questions about what, exactly, this means for your health and the health of your little ones. Here’s what families need to know to stay safe.

Why is wildfire smoke so bad for you?

Wildfire smoke can make anyone sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This smoke is a mix of gases and fine particles created from burning vegetation, building materials and other materials. Wildfire smoke contains particulate matter — very small particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs — as well as carbon monoxide.

Breathing in wildfire smoke can cause these immediate health effects, the CDC says:

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing normally
  • Stinging eyes
  • A scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • An asthma attack
  • Tiredness
  • Fast heartbeat

Being exposed to wildfire smoke can also irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system and make you more prone to lung infections, according to the CDC.

How can wildfire smoke impact pregnant women?

“Any type of severe change in weather should be regarded with concern for your health and the baby’s health,” says women’s health expert Jessica Shepherd, M.D., an OB/GYN in Dallas, Texas. Pregnant women are listed by the CDC as being more likely to get sick if they breathe in wildfire smoke, along with children, older adults and people with preexisting respiratory and heart conditions.

“Smoke exposure from bushfires can increase one’s risk of high blood pressure, gestational diabetes, low birth weight and premature birth,” says Christine Greves, M.D., a board-certified OB/GYN based in Orlando, Florida.

Hormones in your body during pregnancy stimulate your brain to increase how often and how deep you breathe, causing you to take in more oxygen for your growing baby.

“Pregnant women are vulnerable, so they need to take precautions,” says women’s health expert Jennifer Wider, M.D. That’s especially true if you have a chronic health condition like allergies or asthma. “You can have more difficulty breathing in the presence of smoke than other people without these conditions,” she explains.

Luckily, this poor air quality is temporary.

“Will this one temporary short-term episode have an undesired effect?” says Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California. “In general, the answer is likely to be no. The human body is good at handling stresses like this and the fetus is usually well protected.”

How can wildfire smoke impact babies and toddlers?

Children are also on the CDC’s list of populations at a higher-than-normal risk of being impacted by wildfire smoke. That’s because they breathe more air per pound of bodyweight and generally breathe faster and more often than adults, Dr. Casciari says. They can experience symptoms and health effects similar to adults, he says.

However, if the right precautions are taken, like pregnant women, babies and toddlers should be just fine, Dr. Casciari says.

How to stay safe in smoky conditions

The CDC specifically recommends that you take the following steps to protect yourself from wildfire smoke:

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports and listen to public health messaging about air quality safety.
  • Stay indoors whenever possible.
  • Keep your windows and doors closed.
  • Run your air conditioner, if you have one, and keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
  • Limit outdoor exercise when it’s smoky.
  • Avoid activities that create more indoor air pollution, like burning candles and fireplaces, and try to avoid vacuuming (this stirs up particles already in your home).
  • Use a freestanding indoor air filter with particle removal.

Hydration and staying cool is also important, especially if you’re experiencing high temperatures in your area, Dr. Shepherd says.

“Assess your access to clean drinking water, shade or cooling centers, air conditioning and social supports,” she says.

When to call your doctor

The further you are along in your pregnancy, the more likely you are to be affected by air pollution, Dr. Casciari says. So, if you’re due in the next few weeks, it’s not a bad idea to try to stay home in filtered air until the wildfire smoke passes from your area, he says, noting that the same advice is true if you have a baby or toddler in your home.

Overall, though, Dr. Casciari says you shouldn’t feel too worried. But, if you feel a loss of fluid, experience vaginal bleeding, notice your baby is not moving as much or you’re having symptoms of labor, like cramps with contractions that are increasing or pelvic pressure with a low backache, call your doctor right away. The same is also true if you or your child shows signs of respiratory distress, like trouble breathing, excessive coughing or wheezing, Dr. Wider says.




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