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Smoky air and health concerns: What you need to know

ISSAQUAH, Wash. -- The haze is so thick in Issaquah, it's hard to tell you're at the beginning of the Cascade foothills. You can almost taste the hot air.

"I don't go outside when it gets like this," said Amanda Swartz, who has been dealing with her asthma since she was eight in Maine.

After living near Orlando, Fla., where wildfires were frequent and would spoil the air quality for weeks at a time, she sought the much cleaner air of the Pacific Northwest. At least, that was the case until this week when plumes of wildfire smoke from British Columbia drifted across the border into Washington state.

"If you're outside for five, 10 minutes," said Swartz, "when it [hits you], that kind of choke comes into your chest and tightens up. And you just kind of of gasp for breath."

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It's something that can be common for many people, even those without respiratory issues, said Dr. David Naimi, a Seattle native who has been with the Northwest Asthma & Allergy Center for almost a decade. He said he's never seen air quality this bad around Puget Sound.

This week, our air quality at times was worse than Beijing, China and almost as bad as Delhi, India.

That could make it tougher to see the U.S. Navy Blue Angels air show during this weekend's Seafair Festival.

Naimi said even healthy people can have adverse reactions to these levels of smoke.

"A lot of this can be an irritant reaction. And an irritant reaction can happen to any of your airways. It can be eyes, nose, throat and lungs," Naimi said.

He said the small particulate material in the smoke is the culprit.

"Whats happening is you're getting an inflammatory reaction that essentially occurs in a lot of folks."

Most of the symptoms of itchy or watery eyes, coughing or wheezing can be avoided by staying inside.

If you have to go out, keeping your car windows rolled up with the air conditioning set to the recycle air mode will also help significantly, especially for the young, the elderly, and those with breathing issues and chronic health problems.

For Amanda, who thinks she'll be breaking out her dust mask to hang out with a visiting friend on Saturday, she has her inhaler always within reach on days like today.

She said if your problems are continuous, even if you're doing all the right things -- take your shortness of breath seriously.

"Even if you're inside and it's cool and you have the windows shut and you're hydrating -- if you're still noticing that tightness in your chest, if you're still gasping for air, go to the ER. Don't even hesitate."

With one of Seattle's biggest outdoor weekends just a couple of days away, the timing looks decent for some improvement in our air quality for Seafair events. Much of the haze is expected to blow away by Saturday, with some of it lingering into next week.