Wildfires and Your Respiratory Health

Mark L. Friedman, MD, FACEP, FACP

The Western states have seen historic wildfires over the past several weeks. Many people have left the area because of the heavy smoke. For those who have not yet evacuated, air quality is a serious concern. 

Health Risks from Wildfires 

Wildfires themselves are an immediate threat, but the smoke can also have long-term effects on your health. Wildfire smoke contains both particulates and gases. Prolonged exposure to heavy smoke can cause:

  • permanent lung damage
  • chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • lung cancer
  • worsening asthma
  • bronchitis
  • pneumonia

How to Protect Yourself

If you live in an affected area, do what you can to protect yourself from the effects of the thick, billowing smoke. In addition to particle pollution, wood smoke contains several toxic, harmful gases (including benzene and formaldehyde). 

Masks and air filters can help keep particulates out of your house — and lungs — but neither can filter out gases. Moreover, the most effective masks, such as N95 masks, have been in short supply during the pandemic and may be hard to obtain.

The best way to protect your health from the effects of wildfire smoke is to leave the affected area. You should absolutely do this if:

  • the authorities recommend evacuation,
  • smoke is heavy most or all of the time,
  • or you experience trouble breathing.

 

If you can’t leave town, follow these tips: 

  • Stay inside and avoid outdoor exercise.
  • If you have air purifiers in your home, use them. A professionally manufactured air purifier is your best bet — but in a pinch, you can make your own by taping HVAC filters to a box fan. (DIY air purifiers are not a long-term solution, but can minimize risk in an emergency.) It is best to have an air purifier in every room in your home.
  • Ensure that your HVAC system has a clean filter with an efficiency (MERV) rating of 13 or higher to get the most particulates out of the air. Set your system to recirculate.
  • When in your car, keep windows closed, and run the A/C on recirculate. If you can find small, portable air purifiers for your vehicle, use them.
  • Check in with your doctor if you have lung disease, asthma, chronic heart disease, or diabetes, which can make breathing more difficult.


More Resources

The American Lung Association provides additional useful information here about protecting yourself from smoke.

For information about the effects of wildfire smoke, steps to take, and how to tell if smoke or COVID-19 is causing your symptoms, visit the CDC’s page on this topic


Talk to a Doctor in Minutes

If your school or employer provides you with First Stop Health Telemedicine, our doctors are here for you 24/7. Request a visit if you live near a wildfire and experience wheezing, light-headedness, or dizziness. 

 

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