Everyday Health

How Wildfire Smoke Can Affect Your Health

Originally published December 11, 2020

Last updated April 30, 2024

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Even if you’re not in the direct path of the fire, the effects of wildfire smoke inhalation can cause major problems.

Wildfires have caused tragic destruction along the West Coast in recent years, but when it comes to these blazes, it’s not just the flames themselves you need to worry about. Smoke from the fire can travel over long distances and harm your health when you breathe it in. If there have been wildfires in your region, here’s what it can do to your body and how you can protect yourself from the dangers of lingering smoke.

Why is wildfire smoke so dangerous?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the most dangerous part of wildfire smoke is the microscopic fine particles that can get deep into your lungs.

And that’s not all. “Not only do wildfires create very small particulate matter in the air that can be inhaled, but they also produce harmful gases from the combustion of organic materials,” says Richard Barbers, MD, PhD, an expert in allergy, immunology and pulmonology at Keck Medicine of USC and professor of clinical medicine at the Keck School of Medicine of USC.

Even healthy people can feel the effects of smoky air. You could experience respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or a sore throat from wildfire smoke. Other symptoms may include stinging eyes, a runny nose, tiredness or a headache.

Although the long-term health effects of these symptoms are still being researched, the increasing prevalence of wildfires every year means that more people will be exposed more frequently. Seasonally, research has shown that exposure to wildfire smoke is linked with an increased risk of getting the flu — and even COVID-19, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Who’s more at risk from wildfire smoke?

Wildfire smoke can make certain conditions worse, such as lung issues like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

“If you have asthma and/or COPD, follow your physician’s recommendations regarding the use of your inhaler medications,” Dr. Barbers says. “It’s also important to keep well-hydrated during warm conditions, because dehydration can make asthma and COPD worse.”

If you’re having respiratory difficulties that aren’t manageable, seek medical care.

In addition, people with heart disease or cardiovascular conditions may also be more likely to experience chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue because of wildfire smoke. People with diabetes may also be more at risk, because they often have an underlying heart condition.

Since older people are more likely to have lung or heart issues, they’re more likely to have symptoms from wildfire smoke. Children (whose lungs are still growing) and pregnant women may be more at risk, as well.

How can I protect myself against wildfire smoke?

There are several things you can do to limit the harmful effects of wildfire smoke:

  • Stay inside. “Avoid the exposure to these elements, if at all possible, by staying away from smoky areas, or by staying indoors and limiting going outdoors only for very important needs,” Dr. Barbers says.
  • Wear a mask. If going outdoors is necessary, Dr. Barbers recommends wearing a protective mask — even a cloth mask — around both the mouth and nose. And while N95 masks are more effective against smoke, “they may be more difficult for people with asthma or COPD to wear,” he says.
  • Improve your indoor air quality. Dr. Barbers advises closing windows and doors, when you’re indoors. “Turning on an air conditioner with a good filtration system is very helpful, as well,” he says. “If you don’t have an air conditioner, use fans in the rooms where you spend most of your time to help disperse away any particulates in the air.” You may also want to consider running a portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter.
  • Take other precautions inside, too. If your area is affected by wildfire smoke, the EPA says you should avoid doing anything that will make your indoor air quality worse. Even cooking — particularly frying, broiling or using a gas stove — can do this. Don’t dust or vacuum, don’t light a fire in the fireplace or use a candle. And of course, don’t smoke.
  • Check the official U.S. Air Quality Index (AQI). Even if smoke isn’t visible, if there have been recent wildfires, it’s a good idea to check your local air quality by putting in your zip code or city to see if your area is affected. Also, heed any public health warnings and advisories about air quality where you live.

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Tina Donvito
Tina Donvito is a freelance writer covering health, culture, travel and parenting.