Health Threat From Wildfire Smoke
Smoke from wildfires is a mixture of gases and fine particles from burning trees and other plant materials. Smoke can hurt your eyes, irritate your respiratory system, and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases.
How to tell if smoke is affecting you
Smoke can cause—
- A scratchy throat
- Irritated sinuses
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Stinging eyes
- A runny nose
- Asthma exacerbations
If you have heart or lung disease, smoke might make your symptoms worse.
People who have heart disease might experience—
- Chest pain
- Rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
Smoke may worsen symptoms for people who have pre-existing respiratory conditions, such as respiratory allergies, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in the following ways:
- Inability to breathe normally
- Cough with or without mucus
- Chest discomfort
- Wheezing and shortness of breath
When smoke levels are high enough, even healthy people may experience some of these symptoms.
Know whether you are at risk
If you have heart or lung disease, such as congestive heart failure, angina, COPD, emphysema, or asthma, you are at higher risk of having health problems than healthy people.
Older adults are more likely to be affected by smoke, possibly because they are more likely to have heart or lung diseases than younger people.
Children are more likely to be affected by health threats from smoke because their airways are still developing and because they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults. Children also are more likely to be active outdoors.
Limit your exposure to smoke. Following are ways to protect your health:
Pay attention to local air quality reports. Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Find out if your community provides reports about the Environmental Protection Agency's Air Quality Index (AQI). Also pay attention to public health messages about taking additional safety measures.
Refer to visibility guides if they are available. Not every community has a monitor that measures the amount of particles that are in the air. In the western part of the United States, some communities have guidelines to help people estimate AQI based on how far they can see.
If you are advised to stay indoors, keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep windows and doors closed unless it is extremely hot outside. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter elsewhere.
Do not add to indoor pollution. When smoke levels are high, do not use anything that burns, such as candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves. Do not vacuum, because vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home. Do not smoke, because smoking puts even more pollution into the air.
Follow your doctor's advice about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease, Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen.
Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper "comfort" or "dust" masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from smoke. An “N95” mask, properly worn, will offer some protection. For more information about effective masks, see the Respirator Fact Sheet provided by CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
As you evacuate and then return home, be cautious and take the same safety measures you would when there is no emergency: buckle up and do not drink and drive. See CDC’s Impaired Driving and Seat Belts fact sheets for more information on these hazards.
Also, make sure that children are properly buckled up and in the rear seat. See CDC’s Child Passenger Safety fact sheet for more information.
Power outages can be more than an inconvenience. Click on the What You Need to Know When the Power Goes Out page for more information about carbon monoxide poisoning, food safety, safe drinking water, power line hazards and more.