Wildfires have become more than a seasonal event here on the West Coast. Many people have been exposed to unhealthy air and continue to be exposed for prolonged periods. Over-exposure to smoke causes symptoms such as: watery or dry/red eyes, fatigue, persistent cough, phlegm, wheeze, scratchy throat or irritated sinuses, headaches, shortness of breath, asthma attack or lung irritation or irregular heartbeat and chest pain. It is up to each of us to take care of our precious respiratory systems as best we can, especially in these Covid19 times. Lung tissue is designed to maximize the uptake of oxygen and release of CO2, an exchange that happens through our tiniest blood vessels; capillaries. Lungs may feel compact the way they are lodged in our ribcage, but they actually have the surface area of a tennis court! The alveolar breathing sacs bunched together like microscopic grapes at the end of your bronchial tubes are the work horses of your lungs. About 480-million of them are what expand and contract when you take a breath, moving air as well as pumping blood. Your lung tissue is heavily protected by white blood cells and cilia (tiny hairs) that help sweep out pathogens and particulate which collect in mucus and are expelled via coughing. However, very small particulate, as happens in smoke or toxic gases, can damage delicate lung tissue, even entering the body via the bloodstream. This triggers an immune response and can burden the immune system. To reduce the chance of this happening and lift the load on the body’s immunity, the following self-care measures are suggested.

Limit exposure time by staying inside and creating a clean air environment via fans, air-filters (HEPA filters best). Reduce exposure to indoor toxins by suspending use of perfumes, non-organic/biodegradable cleaning and body-care products, smoking, woodfires. Where you don’t have air filtration systems and must flush your space with outdoor air, wait for a time of ‘moderate’ air quality (typically very early morning), open doors and windows, spray plant-based essential oils through your space (eucalyptus/lemon grass/rosemary/thyme/lavender etc.) and run fans. Then shut back in. When you are out, wear an N95 mask if you have one. No N95? then wear a surgical (paper) mask under your double or triple layer cloth mask. Though not considered protective enough for smoke, it will still reduce exposure to harmful particulate.

Take a daily dose of herbs that assist your respiratory system whether in the form of tea, tincture or capsule. Teas are especially nice because steam from the herbs also enters your nose as you drink. Here are three simple combinations which you can elaborate on:

  • Fresh-grated ginger root + slippery elm bark powder + thyme + cinnamon = for cold damp smoke environments when you need mucus to move.
  • Mallow (common leaf or root, or marshmallow root) + mullein (leaf or root) + calendula + peppermint or yerba Buena = for hot, dry conditions to help soothe and repair rough bronchial passages.
  • Yerba Santa or horehound or grindelia + mullein leaf + half the amount of licorice (or raw honey if you can’t have licorice) and lobelia inflata = this is for deeper expelling of material from lungs when you’ve had high exposure.

The above suggestions are steeping teas requiring you pour boiling water over them, cover and sit for at least 15 minutes or more. There are many herbs around you that help in similar ways such as: sage, rosemary, pine needle, cedar, oregano, plantain, coltsfoot, echinacea leaf and comfrey leaf – use what is available. There are also roots and bark that can be simmered and are things often found in tincture formulas: elecampane, osha, spikenard, pleurisy, echinacea root, astragulus, poria, red sage root etc.

Clear your nasal passages daily by using a nasal (netti) wash or bulb syringe filled with warm (boiled then cooled) salt water to which you can add herbal aids or colloidal silver. A saline-based nasal spray will also help if nothing else. Our nose hairs trap particulate but finer dust and spores can travel up the nose to sinuses where they irritate passages causing inflammation. If your nostrils suffer dryness (this usually causes bleeding), then using your pinky finger, swab the inside of each nostril with coconut oil, jojoba or olive oil.

Steam inhalation can help clear blocked sinuses and also re-moisten overly dry nose or lungs. Herbs that reduce inflammation to the tissues can be added as essential oils or as chopped fresh herbs added to the hot water and heated like a tea. Helpful are yerba buena, eucalyptus, rosemary, thyme, sage, mint, lavender, pine/fir needle or bark, bay laurel (careful it’s strong!). You might also choose to simmer such herbs in a pot on your stove to increase humidity and help with family immunity.

Wash your eyes if they are red or irritated. This is easy to do using an eye-cup from the drugstore or the right diameter shot-glass. Only use boiled salt water that has been cooled, distilled water or a bottled eye rinse. To your boiled water you can add herbs like calendula or sage but filter out particulate using paper towels or a coffee filter. You can also drop tincture of goldenseal or Oregon grape or colloidal silver into an eyewash water. Small metal, wood-ash and glass dust from fires can irritate eyes, sometimes even scratching the fine tissue.

Use an herbal throat spray when you leave the house before you put your mask on. Two to four sprays in the back of your throat will serve to protect this tender tissue. Propolis-based sprays are especially good for this as they create a temporary ‘second skin’. Herbs like echinacea and spilanthes, grindelia, licorice, honey or mint are often combined with propolis to help numb, soothe and fortify protection.

Drink extra water as your mucus membranes are working overtime and need to keep flowing, so does your lymph system. The body demands extra water while detoxing itself. You can add natural cooling demulcents to the water like aloe juice, cucumber, coconut water, flax or chia seed soaked water or sea weed. If it’s hot, additional electrolytes in sea salt, lemon/lime or apple cider vinegar are helpful for quelling dehydration.

Eat an anti-oxidant rich diet of berries, green grasses (alfalfa, wheat, barley etc.), fresh vegetable juices, plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables and lean protein. Avoid dairy, refined flours, heavily processed foods and sugar as these tend to increase sticky mucus production. Supplemental antioxidants like vitamin C/E, NAC (N-acetylcysteine), selenium, alpha lipoic acid, CoQ10 and liver detox formulas, teas or foods (milk thistle/dandelion/burdock/yellow dock).

Rest and de-stress when possible, even 5-10 minutes to check in with your feelings and connect with your heart (tears are detoxing too!). Even if you aren’t directly affected by fire, we are connected to each other and naturally attuned to group suffering. A bedtime or stress-relief tea or sleep formula can soothe nerves: California poppy, chamomile, passionflower, lavender, lemon balm, kava, St. John’s wort, valerian or cannabis leaf.