Protect Yourself from Wildfire Smoke

Medical Author: Melissa Conrad Stoppler, MD
Medical Editor: Jay W. Marks, MD

Wildfires are an all-too-common occurrence in many areas of the U.S. Even if the fires do not directly involve your home or surroundings, the smoke generated by wildfires is a potential health hazard for everyone in the area. Smoke from wildfires contains gases along with fine particles generated from burning of trees and plants. Wildfire smoke can cause a number of physical symptoms, and those most affected include the elderly, children, and people suffering from heart and lung conditions.

Symptoms produced by wildfire smoke predominantly involve irritation of the respiratory tract and may include:

People with heart disease may experience worsening of existing symptoms including chest pain, tiredness, and shortness of breath. Those with respiratory conditions can experience difficulty breathing, coughing, or wheezing when exposed to wildfire smoke.

To help protect yourself from wildfire smoke, listen to local air quality reports. Some areas provide news reports containing the Air Quality Index (AQI) from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Some communities also have visibility guides posted so that you can estimate the AQI based upon how far you can see at a given time.

If a public health message warns you to stay indoors, keep the indoor air clean and take the following precautions:

  • Run air-conditioners on recirculation mode and use a clean filter. A high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter may reduce the number of fine particles in indoor air and may help prevent breathing problems. Keep all windows and doors closed.

  • Don't allow smoking in the home, and do not use candles, fireplaces, gas stoves, or other sources of added smoke.

  • Even vacuuming should be avoided, since this can increase the number of particles in the air from substances that are already present in the home.

  • If it's too hot to stay in your home with all the windows and doors closed and you do not have an air conditioner, you should arrange for shelter in another location.

  • Paper dust masks sold at hardware stores are designed to filter large particles in the air (like sawdust) and will not protect you from inhaled smoke.

  • If you have a chronic medical condition, be sure to ask your doctor about measures you can take to help control your symptoms when air quality is poor.

Reference: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Fact sheet "Wildfires"


Last Editorial Review: 10/22/2007




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