Updated: Aug 20, 2020
I’ve learned a thing or two about living through fire season from being a resident of highly flammable Northern California for the last 20 years. In fact, when the coronavirus hit earlier this year, I already had a couple of N95 masks at home because in the past few years, our air and skies were so smoky at the end of summer that we went to stay with family in Southern California. While my friends in the Midwest were horrified early in the pandemic that someone would want to buy a fashionable mask, I was jumping for joy because masks were already part of our regular annual attire, and they were never very sexy.
As an Ayurvedic healer, I’ve also learned a few tricks to protect a body when the environment isn’t ideal. Many people are wondering, "Is fire smoke bad for you?" Well, there a few things you can do other than just getting the fire smoke smell out of your hair and clothes. Here are the top seven practices from Ayurveda that I’ve found to be helpful during the fire season:
1. Oil your nostrils
If you’re in a fire-prone area, then your air is likely dry. When the air is dry, the mucous membranes in your respiratory system also can become dry, inflamed or even start getting runny. Applying oil to the nostrils protects those tissues. You can actually go one step further and tilt your head back over the edge of the bed while someone uses an eye dropper to administer warm oil up into your sinus cavity. This is an Ayurvedic practice called nasya. (Please note that in Ayurvedic medicine, we don’t recommend women do this practice while menstruating.)
2. Use a neti pot
You can use a neti pot filled with 1 cup warm, distilled water and a ½ tsp kosher salt to wash the sinuses out. This is especially great to do once the smoke is cleared and you want to clear the remnants of it from your tissues. If you do it when there is still smoke in the air, then I would also apply the nasal oil again a little while afterwards.
3. Stay hydrated
Drink lots of liquids because, despite what it seems like, your body isn’t fully solid. Physicists have already told you this. It’s permeable. You have openings into different orifices and even space and air pockets that exist inside different cavities in your body (cracking or popping joints, anyone?). Staying hydrated fills the inside spaces of your body with liquid, which is more protective than having a bunch of empty space – less room for air particles to seep into.
4. Get some demulcents
There is a category of substances – foods, herbs, etc. – that can add some slime to your digestive tract tissues and keep your mucous membranes of your throat hydrated. They are referred to as demulcents. If this sounds gross to you, then you might have a wetter body to begin with and not need this so much, but for those individuals who typically get dry – like those with high vata or who are over 50 years old – this can feel very protective. Examples of substances with a demulcent effect are cucumbers, licorice root tea, oatmeal, barley, banana, avocado, chia seeds and tulsi seeds. Many demulcents are sweet, and sweet taste helps create lubrication. Keep in mind that the soothing we get from demulcents is really only temporary and that if you want a longer-term protection, then oily substances are the way to go.
5. Oil your skin
Dry air means more dry bodies, and dry bodies tend to be more highly sensitive. If you have a really wet, juicy body, then the smoke is less likely to affect you, and maybe you don’t even need to listen to any of my recommendations here. If you have a lot of inflammation, then you are not only sensitive, but your body is a reactive one, so whatever substances you put on your body not only need to be soothing, but they also need to be cooling. If your skin is dry and not red, try applying sesame or sunflower oil before your shower. If your skin is dry and inflamed, you’ll typically notice redness on the skin, then coconut oil will have a more soothing and cooling effect.
6. Oil your ears
Yup, smoke can penetrate every open orifice, so you can have your roommate or partner use an eye dropper to administer warm sunflower oil to your ears. Lie down on your side and have someone fill the ear canal completely until s/he sees the oil pool near the opening. Sit for a few minutes and then switch, being careful to put a cotton ball in your ear and a towel under your ear when you switch sides because some of the oil will pour back out. You have the added bonus of this being super relaxing. It's an Ayurvedic practice that many people do monthly to protect the nerves in the head, jaw and neck.
7. Rinse eyes with rose water
Rose water is hydrating and cooling, plus it smells amazing. Sorry, even though you can spray rose water all over your facial skin for hydration, you can’t just pour rose water into your eyes – that will burn. You need saline with it. There is actually a rose water eye drop solution that my favorite apothecary sells, and it's heavenly.
Lastly, I hope this goes without saying, but please stay away from fire. It’s not safe. I don’t care if you did some Tony Robbins fire-walking workshop. Your bodily tissues – skin, hair, eyes, eyebrows – and all your clothes can burn. The protective measures I outline above are for pesky levels of smoke blowing in from other locations and will not protect you when fire or dangerous levels of smoke are in your vicinity. We know you have a mask now, so keep it handy, and if you see fire or if you cannot breathe, seek safety and oxygen!
The good thing is that most humans are really resilient, something everyone needs to be until that rainy season comes to rescue us all.
These tips are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.