October 10, 2021

How Wildfire Smoke Impacts Your Health

Breathing in toxic smoke can lead to serious health problems

large cloud of smoke rising above the top of a forest

Wildfires are becoming a more regular occurrence as increasingly hot, dry weather turns forests into tinder. In addition to the damage these out-of-control blazes inflict on structures and the landscape, the effects of smoke can cause serious health problems.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

Pulmonologist Neha Solanki, MD, discusses the dangers of wildfire smoke and how to protect the air you breathe.

How does smoke impact your health?

Smoke is made of particulate matter (solid or liquid particles from items that have burned like houses and manufactured items), fumes and gases like carbon monoxide.

Inhaling wildfire smoke can cause airway inflammation and lead to lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). There’s also a connection between wildfire smoke and cardiovascular disease.

And you don’t have to live near wildfires to have them affect your breathing. Smoke from larger wildfires often travels thousands of miles while riding the Earth’s jet streams.

“Pollution from wildfire smoke can rise up to 14 miles into the air and then is carried with wind currents which is why it affects everyone,” says Dr. Solanki. “So even if you don’t live directly near wildfires, you’re still exposed to all of that toxic pollution.”

Advertisement

Who is at risk?

Anyone with underlying chronic respiratory conditions or cardiovascular disease is affected more by wildfire smoke. Also, those who are pregnant, people over the age of 65, smokers and children are more likely to experience the negative effects of wildfire smoke.

There’s even evidence that air pollutant exposure can increase the likelihood that someone might get COVID-19. The reasoning? Breathing in smoke can weaken your immune system so it can’t fight off viruses like normal.

“We breathe in smoke, and it gets into our bloodstream,” says Dr. Solanki. “Then the particles stick to a location in our body and the immune system activates and can create an inflammatory response.”

For those who are pregnant, breathing in the toxic smoke can delay their baby’s development and make children more likely to get asthma later in life.

How to protect yourself

First, make sure you’re out of harm’s way from any active wildfires. Then you can improve the air quality around you using these tips:

Advertisement
  • Stay inside. Pay attention to air quality alerts. Many cellphones will send out notifications if the air quality is concerning. You can also visit airnow.gov to get real-time information on the air quality where you live.
  • Keep your windows closed. Keep those toxic fumes out of your house by using your air conditioner, if you have one. Even while driving, Dr. Solanki suggest keeping windows up and circulating the air within the car.
  • Don’t burn candles or use wood-burning stoves. Yes, even something as small as a candle can add pollutants into the air.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke. Secondhand smoke can cause bronchitis, pneumonia and even lung cancer.
  • Use an air purifier. Air purifiers can help filter out damaging particles by up to 85%. Look for one that has a HEPA filter and even a carbon filter, which can help eliminate odors.
  • Wear a mask. While cloth and surgical masks can help stop the spread of respiratory illnesses like the flu and COVID-19, they don’t protect your lungs from fine particles in wildfire smoke. If available, use a medical-grade N95 mask instead.

What are air quality alerts?

Determined by the number of different particles in the air — ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide and carbon monoxide — the air quality can range from zero to 500.

If the air quality is zero to 50, it is considered safe. Ranges from 50 to 100 signal an increase in harmful particles, so it is recommended that individuals with chronic respiratory diseases should stay inside. If the air quality is above 200, it’s cause for concern and everyone — underlying conditions or not — should stay inside.

Think you’ve been exposed to wildfire smoke? There are things you can do at home like drinking lots of water, using a saline nasal spray and increasing your intake of antioxidants. If you have trouble breathing, have a cough or chest tightness, Dr. Solanki says you should seek treatment immediately.

“As wildfires are becoming more and more prevalent, we’re also seeing more and more chronic respiratory diseases in the same areas as well,” she says. “If you have symptoms, then definitely see a physician.”

Related Articles

elderly person sitting in an armchair with hand on his chest
June 4, 2023
Adults 60 and Up Are at Greater Risk of Complications From RSV

Taking extra precaution during RSV season can be lifesaving

The Mullein flower.
December 18, 2022
How Mullein Benefits Your Lungs

For centuries, people have been drinking mullein tea for respiratory conditions

woman looking out of window during self quarentine
December 14, 2020
What Should You Do If You Come in Contact With Someone Who’s Infected With COVID-19?

The short answer from an infectious disease specialist

elderly woman using inhaler for asthma attack
October 6, 2020
Why Asthma Can Hit You Harder as an Adult

This lung disorder is underdiagnosed later in life

Zoomed in rendering of the covid-19 virus.
June 29, 2020
What Is Coronavirus — and How Worried Should You Be?

Plus, the best ways to protect yourself

Woman with a chronic condition concerned about increased Covid risks.
June 29, 2020
FAQs: What You Should Know About COVID-19 and Chronic Medical Conditions

Certain populations are more at risk for severe illness

male sitting on couch using inhaler and holding chest
January 9, 2024
Understanding the Difference Between Asthma and COPD

Both conditions have similar symptoms, but different causes and treatments

female with hand on chest holding inhaler in other hand, with of breathlessness float in background
January 4, 2024
Preventing COPD Exacerbations and Flare-Ups

You can reduce your chances of a flare-up by quitting smoking, avoiding respiratory infections and following your doctor’s orders

Trending Topics

close up of keto gummies
Do Keto Gummies Work for Weight Loss? Are They Safe?

Research is inconclusive whether or not these supplements are helpful

Person in yellow tshirt and blue jeans relaxing on green couch in living room reading texts on their phone.
Here’s How Many Calories You Naturally Burn in a Day

Your metabolism may torch 1,300 to 2,000 calories daily with no activity

Older person postioned sideways showing dowager hump.
Dowager’s Hump: What It Is and How To Get Rid of It

The hump at the base of your neck may be caused by osteoporosis or poor posture

Ad