Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

August 23, 2022

Explore the negative health effects of wildfire smoke. Understand who is more at risk and how to reduce your exposure with guidance from the Western Fire Chiefs Association (WFCA).

health effects of wildfire smoke - valley with smoke
Smoke from wildfires can adversely affect communities hundreds of miles away.

Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

Smoke from wildfires can travel long distances and affect your community, even if the fire itself is not a threat.  In many cases, smoke from wildfires is still harmful to the respiratory and cardiovascular health of people residing hundreds of miles away.

It is important to know the adverse health effects of wildfire smoke and understand how to reduce exposure, minimizing potential harm to you and your family.

Why is Wildfire Smoke Harmful to Your Health?           

Wildfire smoke is made up of a complex mixture of fine particles and gases. Smoke is very irritating to the eyes, nose, and throat, but the fine particles pose the largest threat to health.  Due to their tiny size, fine particles can more easily reach and penetrate the lungs when inhaled.

As the fine particles travel deep into the respiratory tract, they can cause various short and long-term health problems. Shortness of breath and respiratory irritation are common effects. They can also worsen existing health conditions, such as asthma and heart disease.

Additionally, wildfires release large amounts of mercury into the atmosphere, which can cause muscle weakness, as well as vision and speech impairment for people of all ages.

Who is More at Risk From Wildfire Smoke?

The health effects of smoke from wildfires can be damaging to everyone – even healthy people. However, certain demographics should take extra precautions against inhaling wildfire smoke1:

Infants and Young Children

Children’s lungs and respiratory systems are not fully developed, meaning they are less equipped to cope with smoke pollution. They also breathe more air per pound of bodyweight when compared to adults, heightening their risk of exposure.

Pregnant Women

Smoke pollution can cause potential health complications for both the mother and the fetus.

People with Chronic Diseases

People with lung or heart diseases like angina, emphysema, or asthma may find that the smoke pollution aggravates their symptoms. Those with diabetes are also at risk, due to their increased likelihood of having respiratory disease.

Older People

Older adults are more likely to have heart or lung disease, which makes them vulnerable to smoke pollution.

How Can You Tell if Wildfire Smoke is Affecting You?

Many factors can dictate how wildfire smoke will affect you.  The concentration of smoke, duration of exposure, and proximity to the fire can affect the severity of symptoms. Although everyone has a different sensitivity to smoke, it is always a good idea to avoid breathing it in as much as possible.

Even if you have a high tolerance (no existing health conditions), heavy smoke in close proximity is harmful to everyone. Therefore, it is important to know the signs2:

Short term, you will know if wildfire smoke is starting to affect you if:

  • You experience a runny nose and your eyes and throat start to feel irritated and sore.
  • Your lung function starts to decrease, and you notice yourself coughing and wheezing.

Long-term, wildfire smoke inhalation can cause:

  • Pulmonary inflammation and aggravations of any pre-existing health conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, and lung disease.
  • Worsening of any existing cardiovascular diseases, which can lead to heart failure.

Smoke also contains a number of harmful gases, the most dangerous being carbon monoxide. Carbon monoxide decreases the body’s oxygen supply, leading to headaches and reduced alertness.  It can also worsen the symptoms of anyone who suffers from angina. In large enough quantities, carbon monoxide inhalation is fatal.

health effects of wildfire smoke - smoky mountain
If it looks or smells smoky outside, take the necessary precautions to protect yourself and your family from exposure.

How to Reduce Your Exposure to Wildfire Smoke

Avoiding smoke is the only way to avoid exposure. There are a number of things you can do to prepare ahead of time to protect your health if you live in a wildfire-prone area.

Prepare for Wildfire Season

Talk to a healthcare professional

  • If you suffer from a heart, vascular, or pulmonary disease, it is worth speaking to a doctor ahead of wildfire season to discuss the best way to protect yourself. This can include having an appropriate evacuation plan, keeping enough medicine on hand, and having an action plan in place for diseases like asthma.

Store foods that do not require cooking

  • Frying or cooking over a gas stove can add to indoor pollution levels. Keeping a several-day supply of foods that do not require cooking will enable you to keep the particle pollution to a minimum inside your home on smoky days.

Keep a supply of appropriate masks

  • Using a surgical or fabric mask will not sufficiently protect your lungs.  N-95 and P-100 respirators are recommended to protect from particle pollution. Make sure you know how to wear the masks correctly to ensure the best protection.

If a Wildfire Breaks Out in Your Area:

Stay indoors

  •  If you have not already been advised to evacuate the area, stay indoors with the windows and doors closed. Use high-efficiency filters in your air conditioning unit to capture fine particles.

Use a portable air cleaner

  • These can help to reduce indoor air pollution but be careful to choose one that does not create ozone (another harmful air pollutant). If you do not have AC, a portable air filter is a good alternative to help clean indoor air.

Create a ‘clean room’

  • Choose a room in the house that has the least exposure to the outdoors. In other words, a room with no fireplace, and with as few exterior windows, doors, and other outlets as possible. Consider using a portable air filter in that room too.

Consider evacuation

  • If you do not have an air conditioner or air filter, and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, consider finding alternative shelter.

Pay attention to changes

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports and let common sense guide your actions.  If it looks or smells smoky outside, it is not a good idea to let your children play in the garden or partake in vigorous activity. Inside the home, avoid activities that will compromise your air quality, such as frying food or vacuuming.

Sources

  1. Environmental Protection Agency, “How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health,” Accessed August 16, 2022.
  2. Environmental Protection Agency, “How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health,” Accessed August 16, 2022.

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