Wildfires and Your Health

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil
June 8, 2023
3 min read

Wildfires are unfortunately becoming an annual occurrence with devastating impacts on homes, businesses, wildlife, habitats, and people’s health. Wildfires release billions of particles into the air which can travel miles and have serious health consequences.

The size of these particles can be small on the order of microns in size which means they can travel into the deepest parts of the lung through small conducting airways known as bronchioles and into the air sacks called alveoli where gas exchange and breathing occurs. These particles trigger an inflammatory response in the lungs which can lead to significant symptoms and impact people with and without preexisting medical conditions.

While we do not yet know the long-term health effects of wildfires, the short-term consequences can be troublesome and include a scratchy throat, cough, wheezing, sneezing, runny nose, congestion, chest discomfort, eye irritation/redness, and even shortness of breath.

In those patients who have underlying lung conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, or allergies, the symptoms can be much more severe.

The good news is there are steps you can take to protect your body from wildfires.

What to Do When Air Quality Is Bad

  • Keep track of air quality ratings in your area on sites like purpleair.com
  • Minimize exposure outdoors and try to exercise indoors
  • If you do go outside, remove clothes and shower when you return to reduce the amount of particles that are tracked into your home
  • Keep indoor air clean; While it can be tempting to light candles or burn a fire during outages, this can lead to increased air pollution inside your home and make the inflammation worse.
  • Protect your lungs! Paper, dust masks, and bandanas are often too porous to provide protection. If possible, choose a respirator that has been approved by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, either with a N95 or P100 rating.

No matter where you live, you may be at risk of inhaling particles pushed into the atmosphere by a distant fire. In order to keep safe from this risk, it's important to be vigilant and prepared.

How to Prepare

Here are some ways to prepare your home for maximum safety during periods of poor air quality:

    • Ensure that your house is properly and firmly insulated. Unsealed windows, cracks, and vents can let unwanted air in and endanger your home.

    • Find out where your home vents air; you may need to seal it if smoke pollution becomes severe. Many homes have multiple vent locations, some in hard-to-reach spots.

    • If you have a heart condition or a condition that affects your breathing, such as lung disease or asthma, talk with your healthcare provider about a fire season action plan — including how much medication you should have on hand in case of emergency.

    • If possible, have a several-day supply of nonperishable foods that do not require cooking. The smoke produced by frying or broiling can negatively affect indoor air quality.

    • Room air cleaners can reduce particle levels indoors, but before purchasing one, be sure to check the manufacturer’s specifications (to make sure you are buying the right size and type for the rooms you will be using it in).

We understand that wildfires and their impact can be very overwhelming and stressful, but we at Carbon Health are here to help you and your family navigate any difficult time.

If you do notice a worsening of an underlying medical conditions or if you are having trouble breathing, seek medical attention. Our providers are ready to help at your local Carbon Health clinic or via Carbon Health’s Virtual Urgent Care.

Aaron S. Weinberg MD, MPhil

Aaron S. Weinberg, MD, MPhil, is Director of Program Development at Carbon Health and triple board-certified in Pulmonary, Critical Care, and Internal Medicine.