Why is wildfire smoke bad for me?

(updated 09/06/2017) Smoke is a mixture of gases and fine particles (particulate) released when things burn. In addition to burning your eyes, these fine particles and gases can be inhaled deep into your lungs. This makes it harder to breathe and may worsen other chronic health conditions such as asthma or heart disease. Fortunately, most people who are exposed to smoke will not have lasting health problems. How much and how long you are exposed to the smoke, as well as your age and health status, helps determine whether or not you will experience smoke-related health problems. If you are experiencing serious medical problems for any reason, seek medical treatment immediately.

What chemicals are in smoke from wildfires?

Wildfire smoke contains carbon monoxide, a colorless, odorless and toxic gas. Firefighters working near the fire are at greatest risk for high doses of carbon monoxide. Areas even a few hundred yards downwind of the fire where there are high particulate smoke levels typically don’t have high levels of carbon monoxide. Signs of high carbon monoxide levels in the blood include headaches, dizziness, nausea, and decreased mental functioning. Wildfire smoke contains other chemicals, many of which cause irritation to eyes, noses, and throats. Find out what's in wood smoke in wood smoke pdf.

What's the outdoor air quality in my community?

The Washington Air Quality Advisory (PDF) scale is an excellent tool for gauging the quality of the air in your community. The air quality advisory index translates pollution measurements into six health categories ranging from “Good” to “Hazardous.” Check your local outdoor air quality at: The Department of Ecology and its partners monitor outdoor air pollution at over 70 locations in 27 counties throughout the state. The air pollutants most commonly measured in Washington are fine particulate matter and ozone. Monitors are typically placed in regions where higher levels of air pollution occur. Sometimes temporary monitoring stations are placed in areas during emergency events such as wildfires.

What should schools do when it’s smoky?

The school guide, Air Pollution and School Activities (PDF), provides recommendations for recess, P.E., and athletic events and practices. Our advice is based upon the categories in the Washington Air Quality Advisories.

Should my child’s school be open when it's smoky?

It depends on a number of factors, including how much smoke is in the area, building design, and air conditioning and filtration. Exposure inside schools may be similar to or better than in some homes. Sometimes air quality is poor in the morning, but improves later in the day. Local school and health officials consider these issues and other factors when deciding to close a school.

Should I let my child walk to school when the air is smoky?

If air quality is considered “Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous,” it’s best for children to avoid walking to school. If air quality is in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category, children with asthma may experience breathing difficulties walking to school.

Who is most affected by the smoke?

Inhaling smoke is not good for anyone, even healthy people. But the people who are most likely to be affected by smoke include:
  • Those with heart or lung disease such as congestive heart failure, angina, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or asthma, or who have had a prior heart attack, are at a higher risk of having health problems.
  • Older adults. Older adults may have unrecognized heart or lung disease.
  • Children. Children’s lungs and airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
  • Pregnant women. Pregnant women also breathe in more air per pound of body weight than others.
  • Smokers. Smokers already have lower lung function or lung disease, and breathing smoke can make this condition worse.
  • Individuals with respiratory infections like colds or flu.
  • People who are diabetic or who have had a stroke.

How can I tell if smoke is affecting me or my family?

  • Smoke can cause coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes, and runny nose.
  • If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
  • People who have heart disease might experience chest pain, a rapid or irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, and fatigue.
  • Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions such as asthma, COPD, or respiratory allergies. They may experience the following symptoms: inability to breathe normally, cough with or without mucus, chest discomfort, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
When smoke levels are high, even healthy people may experience symptoms or health problems. Contact your health care provider if you have heart or lung problems when around smoke. Dial 911 for emergency assistance if symptoms are serious.

What can I do to protect myself and my family from the smoke?

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings for your community.
  • Pay attention to public health messages from your local public health agency.
  • Avoid physical exertion if smoke is in the air.
  • If you are advised to stay indoors, keep indoor air as clean as possible.
  • Keep windows and doors closed. If there is no air conditioning and it is too hot to keep windows and doors closed, consider leaving the area.
  • Run an air conditioner if you have one but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the unit set to re-circulate. Change the filter regularly.
  • Use a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter to reduce indoor air pollution. A HEPA filter may reduce the number of irritating fine particles in indoor air. A HEPA filter with charcoal will help remove some of the gases from the smoke.
  • Don’t add to indoor pollution. Don’t use candles, fireplaces or gas stoves. Don’t vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Don’t smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
  • If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor's directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan. Call your health care provider if your symptoms worsen.

If I’m pregnant, should I take more precautions?

Talk to your healthcare provider if you have specific questions. In general, pregnant women should avoid or limit exposure to wildfire smoke by limiting heavy exertion and time spent outdoors. Pregnant women should remember that they are also breathing for their developing babies. Consult your healthcare provider if you have shortness of breath, chest pain, rapid heartbeat or other symptoms.

Will a face mask protect me from wildfire smoke? ‪

  • Respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 provide some protection – they filter out fine particles but not hazardous gases (such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, and acrolein). This type of mask can be found at many hardware and home repair stores and pharmacies. Your local health department may also have some.
  • Choose an N95 or N100 mask that has two straps that go around your head. Don’t choose a one-strap paper dust mask or a surgical mask that hooks around your ears – these don’t protect you against the fine particles in smoke.
  • Choose a size that will fit over your nose and under your chin. It should seal tightly to your face. These masks don’t come in sizes that fit young children.
  • Don’t use bandanas or towels (wet or dry) or tissue held over the mouth and nose. These may relieve dryness but they won’t protect your lungs from wildfire smoke.
Anyone with lung or heart disease, or who is chronically ill, should check with their medical provider before using any mask. Using respirator masks can make it harder to breathe, which may make existing medical conditions worse. The extra effort it takes to breathe through a respirator mask can make it uncomfortable to use them for very long. These masks should be used mostly by people who have to go outdoors. Respirator masks shouldn't be used on young children – they don’t seal well enough to provide protection. They also don’t seal well on people with beards.

How do I use my respirator mask?

Place the mask over your nose and under your chin, with one strap placed below the ears and one strap above. Adjust the mask so that air cannot get through at the edges.
  • Pinch the metal part of the mask tightly over the top of your nose.
  • The mask fits best on clean shaven skin.
  • Throw away your mask when it gets harder to breathe through, if it gets damaged, or if the inside gets dirty. Use a new mask each day if you can.
  • It is harder to breathe through a mask, so take breaks often if you work outside.
  • If you feel dizzy or nauseated, go to a less smoky area, take off your mask and get medical help if you don’t feel better.

How do I know if the air in my house is better than the air outdoors?

The only way to know for sure is to test the air in your house and compare it to outdoor air, but indoor air quality is likely better.  Most homes with central heating systems have filters that remove the larger particles from the air. To keep smoke out of your house or apartment, keep your windows and doors closed. Put your air conditioner on recycle or re-circulate and close the outside air vent. The longer smoke is in an area the more of these particles may travel indoors.

Is a home carbon monoxide monitor helpful when smoke is around?

Having a carbon monoxide detector in your home is a very good idea to protect yourself and your family.  However, a home carbon monoxide monitor may not detect lower levels that can still affect your health. Carbon monoxide is a poisonous gas that cannot be seen or smelled. Breathing high levels of carbon monoxide can cause serious health problems or death. Breathing lower amounts of carbon monoxide can cause headache, dizziness, fatigue,weakness, confusion, and nausea. People with heart disease may be especially sensitive to carbon monoxide.

Will an air filter improve the air quality in my home?

Some room air cleaners can reduce indoor air pollution if they have the proper filter. The most effective air cleaners have what is known as a HEPA filter, which removes the fine particulate matter. HEPA filters with charcoal will remove or reduce chemicals in the air, but not carbon monoxide. Air filtration units should be located in the room where you spend most of your time. For more information, see California's air cleaning devices for the home (PDF).

Should I exercise outdoors when smoke is around?

You shouldn't exercise outdoors when air quality is in the “Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy, or Hazardous” categories. If you are sensitive to smoke, you should limit your outdoor activities when air quality is in the “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” category. People with asthma and lung and heart conditions may be very sensitive to poor air quality and may start to have symptoms when air quality is in the “Moderate” category. Check outdoor air conditions on the Washington Air Quality Advisory Map.

If air quality is listed as “hazardous,” how long can I be outside?

You shouldn't go outdoors when air quality is listed as “Hazardous.” When air quality is “Hazardous” there will be a lot of fine particles and gases (some toxic) in the air that can severely affect your health. The amount of time you can be outdoors in “Hazardous” conditions without experiencing health problems will vary based on your activity, age, and overall health condition.

What should I do if I must drive?

Avoid driving, when possible. But if you must drive, you can reduce the amount of smoke in your vehicle by keeping the windows and vents closed. Car ventilation systems typically remove a small portion of the particles coming in from outside. Most vehicles can re-circulate the inside air, which will help keep the smoke particles out. Remember that in hot weather, a car’s interior can heat up very quickly. Children and pets should never be left unattended in a vehicle with the windows closed.


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