Smoke from wildfires can trigger a host of respiratory and cardiovascular symptoms, ranging from a runny nose and cough to a potentially fatal heart attack or stroke. A new study suggests that the dangers posed by smoke from wildfires may also extend to the largest organ in the human body and our first line of defense against external threats: the skin.
In the two weeks of November 2018 when smoke from the campfire wildfires suffocated the San Francisco Bay Area, San Francisco health clinics saw an increase in the number of visiting patients with problems. eczema, also known as atopic dermatitis, and general itching, compared to the same time of year in 2015 and 2016, according to the study.
The results suggest that even short-term exposure to hazardous air quality caused by smoke from forest fires can adversely affect skin health. The report, produced by medical researchers at the University of California at San Francisco, in collaboration with researchers at the University of California at Berkeley, appears April 21 in the journal JAMA Dermatology.
“Existing research on air pollution and health outcomes has primarily focused on heart and respiratory health outcomes, and this is understandable. But there is a gap in the research linking air pollution and skin health, ”said lead author of the study Raj Fadadu, a student at the UC Berkeley-UCSF Joint Medical Program. “The skin is the largest organ in the human body, and it is in constant interaction with the external environment. It therefore makes sense that changes in the external environment, such as an increase or decrease in air pollution, can affect the health of our skin. “
Air pollutants can slip through skin barriers
Air pollution from forest fires, which consists of fine particles (PM2.5), polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and gases, can impact both normal and prone skin. to eczema in various ways. These pollutants often contain chemical compounds that act as keys, allowing them to pass the skin’s outer barrier and enter cells, where they can disrupt gene transcription, trigger oxidative stress, or cause inflammation.
Eczema, or atopic dermatitis, is a chronic disease that affects the skin’s ability to act as an effective barrier against environmental factors. Because the skin barrier has been compromised, people with this condition are prone to breakouts of red, itchy skin in response to irritants and may be even more prone to damage from air pollution.
“The skin is an excellent physical barrier that separates us and protects us from the environment,” said study lead author Dr. Maria Wei, dermatologist and melanoma specialist at UCSF. “However, there are certain skin disorders, such as atopic dermatitis, in which the barrier is not fully functional. It is not normal even when you do not have a rash. So it would make sense that, when exposed to significant air pollution people with this disease may notice an effect on the skin. “
Even a short burst of air pollution during the campfire harms skin health
Previous studies have found a link between atopic dermatitis and air pollution in cities with high background levels of air pollution from cars and industry. However, this is the first study to examine the impacts of a very short burst of extremely dangerous air from forest fires. Despite being 175 miles from the campfire, San Francisco saw an approximately nine-fold increase in baseline PM2.5 levels during the time of the fire.
To conduct the study, the team looked at data from more than 8,000 dermatology clinic visits by adults and children between October 2015, 2016 and 2018 and February of the following year. They found that during the campfire, clinic visits for atopic dermatitis and general itching increased significantly in both adult and pediatric patients.
“At least 89% of the patients who were itchy during the campfire period had no known diagnosis of atopic dermatitis, suggesting that people with normal skin also experienced irritation and / or absorption of toxins in a very short period of time, “Wei says.
Although skin conditions such as eczema and itching are not as deadly as the respiratory and cardiovascular effects of smoke from wildfires, they can still have a serious impact on people’s lives, researchers say. The study also documented an increase in the levels of prescribed drugs, such as steroids, during times of high air pollution, suggesting that patients may experience severe symptoms.
People can protect their skin during wildfire season by staying indoors, wearing clothing that covers the skin if they go outside, and using emollients, which can strengthen the skin’s barrier function. A new medicine to treat eczema, called Tapinarof, is currently in clinical trials and could also be a useful tool in times of bad air.
“Many conversations about the health implications of climate change and air pollution do not focus on skin health, but it is important to recognize that skin conditions affect the quality of people’s lives, their social interactions and their psychological state, ”Fadadu mentioned. “I hope that these health impacts can be better integrated into policies and discussions on the widespread health effects of climate change and air pollution.”