Kids, pets more at risk with smoke exposure

Even a little smoke exposure can be damaging for kids and pets as air quality in the Pacific Northwest stays at very unhealthy levels, according to doctors in both fields.

Like most 3-year-olds, Penny loves a good puzzle as she sits on the floor of her house with her parents, matching pieces together. But also like most 3-year-olds, she’d rather be playing in the park, especially after several days cooped up in the house with smoky skies blanketing Western Washington.

But Seattle closed parks because of the unhealthy air quality and the smoke is expected to linger even longer than expected. Swedish Medical Center pediatrician Dr. Elizabeth Meade said even a little smoke exposure can have lasting effects for someone like Penny.

“Because those lungs are growing and developing so quickly, particularly in children under two, we really, really do worry about potential long-term effects, even with a small amount of exposure,” Dr. Meade said.


Of course, acute breathing problems are also a concern, in addition to asthma and increased infection rates. Dr. Meade said kids are extra susceptible because they breathe in more particles than adults.

“Children naturally have a faster respiratory rate so they breathe more times per minute than adults do, and so they have a significantly greater cumulative particle exposure in the same amount of time as an adult outside,” she said.

Because of it, her advice is to absolutely stay inside. The same can be said for four-legged children, too.

Seattle Humane Society Chief Medical Director Dr. Jessica Reed said pet owners should plan to put up with their animals’ restlessness in the house a little while longer, even negating dog walks around the block.

“Until we get back into a healthier space, I just wouldn’t even risk it,” Dr. Reed said. “I’m not doing [dog walks], we’re going out in the yard for potty and if you don’t have a yard and you need to take your dog out to go, I would just get back inside as soon as the business is done.”

“Our pets are even more at risk because they don’t have the same understanding of what’s happening and their own personal limitations,” she said, indicating that it’s up to us to keep them from exerting themselves outside.

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Both children and pets will have a harder time communicating the effects of smoke exposure, so in both cases, Drs. Meade and Reed said to use your best judgment when noticing if something doesn’t seem right.

“Your child may be breathing more quickly than normal, you may see those retractions between the ribs in and out, you may have a child whose nose is sort of flaring in and out or they’re grunting if they’re an infant,” Dr. Meade said, indicating signs of concern in younger children who may not be able to communicate impacts as well. 

In older children, she said any signs the child is ‘off,’ like nausea, lethargy, exhaustion or dizziness can be causes for concern and you can talk with your child’s doctor about those symptoms. But she said you should definitely seek immediate medical attention if a child is having significant difficulty breathing, any color change around the face or lips or vomiting to the point of dehydration. 

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In pets, like young children, it’s important to look for small changes, Dr. Reed said. 

“Paying attention to any kind of subtle difference that you may notice in your pet, from a mild cough or sneeze or reverse sneeze to just kind of a change in demeanor, maybe being a bit more lethargic, having a difficult time breathing, certainly, gasping or wheezing or anything like that would definitely be on the urgent side of things and would prompt a call to the vet,” she said.

For animals that cannot be brought indoors, Dr. Reed said it’s important to make sure they have substantial, fresh water. In the case of working animals like horses, she said not to ask animals to physically exert themselves while the air quality remains poor.