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Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on August 26, 2021

When a wildfire rages, the flames are the biggest threat. But the smoke poses its own risks. Fine particles and gases can get into your lungs and bring on a number of health problems. Some people are more sensitive to the smoke than others, but everyone should do what they can to avoid breathing it in.

Find out the symptoms to be aware of, who’s most at risk for health issues, and steps you can take to limit the amount of smoke you breathe in.

What Are the Symptoms?

High levels of wildfire smoke can make anyone:

If you have heart disease, the smoke could make your symptoms worse. You might have:

  • Chest pain
  • Racing or pounding heart (palpitations)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tiredness

If you have lung disease, your symptoms could also get worse. You might have:

  • More trouble breathing deeply or easily
  • Cough
  • Phlegm
  • Chest discomfort
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath

Who’s Most at Risk?

Your chances for health problems go up if you’re:

  • Younger than 18 years old
  • 65 or older
  • Pregnant
  • Living with a long-term condition like heart or lung disease, asthma, or diabetes
  • A wildfire fighter or an outdoor worker
  • Lacking access to affordable health care or experiencing homelessness
  • Living with a weakened immune system due to a health condition or medications

Also, if you haven’t gotten vaccinated against COVID-19, be aware that wildfire smoke can make you more likely to get lung infections, including the virus that causes COVID-19. If you catch the coronavirus, inhaling wildfire smoke might make your symptoms worse.

The best thing you can do to lower your chances of catching COVID-19 is to get vaccinated. The COVID-19 vaccines are safe and effective for everyone 12 and older.

If you have to stay at a public disaster shelter during a wildfire, help protect yourself against COVID-19 by wearing a mask and bringing hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.

Does Wildfire Smoke Affect Mental Health?

It might, especially if the smoke hangs around for a long time or keeps coming back. But research on the links between wildfire smoke and mental health is still in its early stages. We need more studies to understand the possible effects better.

We do know that that the threat of wildfires themselves can take a toll on mental health. Research shows that living through one of these blazes makes you more likely to get conditions such as depression and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Before, during, and after a wildfire, it’s common to:

  • Feel scared
  • Constantly worry
  • Sleep poorly
  • Have depression-like symptoms

Someone who’s been through a natural disaster like a wildfire might also:

  • Have nightmares, memories, or thoughts about it over and over
  • Worry a lot
  • Feel guilty for unclear reasons
  • Miss a lot of work or school
  • Eat or sleep too much or not enough
  • Avoid people or activities
  • Have less energy
  • Have lots of stomachaches or headaches
  • Feel hopeless or helpless
  • Drink or smoke too much, or turn to drugs

Reach out for help if you or someone you know has any of these symptoms for 2 weeks or longer. Talk to your loved ones, trusted friends, or your doctor. You can also get support and counseling by calling or texting Disaster Distress Helpline at 800-985-5990. It’s confidential and available 24/7.

If you’ve thought about hurting or killing yourself or someone else, get help right away. Call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255).

What Can I Do to Avoid or Limit Wildfire Smoke?

Take safety measures like these at home:

Keep windows and doors shut. Stay cool and safe by using a high-efficiency filter in your air conditioner or room unit. If you don’t have air conditioning and it’s too warm inside, find shelter somewhere else.

Avoid making the air quality worse. You could pollute it by:

  • Burning candles
  • Using a gas, propane, or woodburning stove
  • Lighting a fireplace
  • Using aerosol sprays
  • Frying or boiling meat
  • Smoking tobacco
  • Vacuuming

Consider buying a portable air cleaner. Make sure it’s sized for the room you want to use it in. Also check that the manufacturer says it doesn’t create an air pollutant called ozone.

Set up one room in your home to be a “clean room.” It should have no fireplace and few windows and doors. If you have a portable air cleaner, use it in here.

Consider buying N95 respirators. These can protect you from airborne particles if they fit your face snugly and you wear them properly. They’re sold online and at certain home improvement stores.

If you have a long-term health condition like asthma, COPD, or heart disease and you’re living in an area affected by wildfire smoke, you can take safety measures like these.

Before wildfire season:

  • Ask your doctor to come up with an action plan of steps you’ll take to protect your health.
  • Keep a 7- to 10-day supply of your medications in a childproof, waterproof container to bring with you if you have to evacuate.
  • Buy groceries you can eat without cooking, since frying or grilling can pollute the air inside your home.

When there’s wildfire smoke in the air:

  • Check the air quality in your area. Follow the instructions on going outside and exercising for “sensitive individuals.”
  • Follow any advice or action plan your doctor gave you.
  • Evacuate if you have trouble breathing or other symptoms that doesn’t go away. Call your doctor, too.

After a wildfire:

  • Keep checking the air quality, since smoke can linger after a wildfire ends.
  • Call your doctor if you have symptoms that get worse or won’t go away.
WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES: 

CDC: “Wildfires,” “Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke,” “Going to a Public Disaster Shelter During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

EPA: “How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health.”

AirNow.gov: “Wildfire Smoke Fact Sheet.”

Washington State Department of Health: “Smoke from Fires.”

UCLA: “Review of the Mental Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke, Solastalgia, and Non-Traditional Firefighters.”

International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: “Chronic Mental Health Sequelae of Climate Change Extremes: A Case Study of the Deadliest Californian Wildfire.”

SAMHSA: “Wildfires,” “Warning Signs and Risk Factors for Emotional Distress,” “Suicide Prevention.”

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