How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health

Updated January 2017

Smoke may smell good, but it's not good for you

Image of smoke filled mountains

While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a wildfire, it’s bad for everyone.

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, ranging from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.

Some people are more at risk

It’s especially important for you to pay attention to local air quality reports during a fire if you are

  • A person with heart or lung disease, such as heart failure, angina, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema or asthma.
  • Are an older adult, which makes you more likely to have heart or lung disease than younger people.
  • Caring for children, including teenagers, because their respiratory systems are still developing, they breathe more air (and air pollution) per pound of body weight than adults, they’re more likely to be active outdoors, and they’re more likely to have asthma.
  • A person with diabetes, because you are more likely to have underlying cardiovascular disease.
  • A pregnant woman, because there could be potential health effects for both you and the developing fetus.

How to tell if smoke is affecting you

High concentrations of smoke can trigger a range of symptoms.

  • Anyone may experience burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke may make your symptoms worse
    •  People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath, or fatigue.
    •  People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Protect yourself!

It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke - especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. Here are some steps you can take to protect your health:

Prepare for fire season if you live in a fire-prone area

Image of patient and health professional

If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your health care provider before fire season to make plans. Discuss when to leave the area, how much medicine to have on hand, and your asthma action plan if you have asthma.

Have a several-day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking. Cooking - especially frying and broiling - can add to indoor pollution levels.

Consider buying an air cleaner. Some room air cleaners can help reduce particle levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your rooms as specified by the manufacturer. If you choose to buy an air cleaner, don’t wait until there’s a fire - make that decision beforehand. Note: Don’t use an air cleaner that generates ozone. That just puts more pollution in your home.

Have a supply of N-95 or P-100 masks on hand, and learn how to use them correctly. (1 pg., 650KB, about PDF) They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.

During a fire

Image of AirNow Interactive fire map
AirNow Interactive Fire Map
Pay attention to local air quality reports. As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air increases - and so should the steps you take to protect yourself. Air quality reports are available through local news media, your local air agency or on airnow.gov.

Use common sense to guide your activities. Even if you don’t have a monitor in your area, if it looks or smells smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it's probably not a good time for children - especially children with asthma - to be vigorously active outdoors, or active outdoors for prolonged periods of time. If you are active outdoors, pay attention to symptoms; they are an indication that you need to reduce exposure.

Image of particulate mask courtesy of California EPA
Photo Courtesy of California
Department of Public Health

Dust masks aren't enough! Paper “dust” masks or surgical masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in wildfire smoke. Scarves or bandanas (wet or dry) won’t help, either. Particulate masks known as N-95 or P-100 respirators will help, but they must fit well and be used correctly. They are sold at many hardware and home repair stores and online.

If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed - unless it's extremely hot outside. Run your air conditioner, if you have one. Keep the filter clean to prevent bringing additional smoke inside. Open windows to air out the house when air quality improves. Note: If you don't have an air conditioner, staying inside with the windows closed may be dangerous in extremely hot weather. In these cases, seek alternative shelter, such as with relatives or a cleaner air shelter.

Image of young girl using an inhaler

Help keep particle levels inside lower. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. Try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves - and even candles. Don't vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don't smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.

If you have asthma or another lung disease, make sure you follow your healthcare provider’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma action plan. Have at least a five-day supply of medication on hand. Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen.

If you have cardiovascular disease, follow your healthcare provider’s directions and call if your symptoms worsen. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, dial 9-1-1.

Resources

Get air quality information: If there is an active fire in your area, follow your local news, the airnow.gov website, or your state air quality website for up-to-date information.

Learn more about smoke and health: See Wildfire Smoke, A Guide for Public Health Officials: https://www3.epa.gov/airnow/wildfire_may2016.pdf (76 pp., 1.5MB, about PDF)

For information about home air cleaners: https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/guide-air-cleaners-home

For a list of certified air cleaning devices: http://www.arb.ca.gov/research/indoor/aircleaners/certified.htm

Learn the right way to use an N-95 or P-100 particulate respirator mask: http://www.bepreparedcalifornia.ca.gov/ResourcesAndLinks/Languages/Documents/English/ENG_ProtectLungsSmoke7208color.pdf (1 pg., 650KB, about PDF)

What to do before, during, and after a wildfire: http://emergency.cdc.gov/disasters/wildfires/index.asp

Only your doctor can advise you about your specific health situation. But EPA’s color-coded Air Quality Index can help you protect yourself when particle levels are high. See the Air Quality Guide for Particle Pollution for specific steps you can take.