Wildfires Keep Raging—and They Pose Major Health Risks

Where there's smoke, there's burning eyes, breathing problems and more.

Picture of trees and wildfire with two people

Medically reviewed in January 2022

For people in the path of wildfires, the most immediate concerns surround protecting their property, their loved ones and their own lives. What often goes unaccounted for are the health risks posed by smoke exposure to residents and emergency workers impacted by these disasters.

Find out how wildfires can impact your health and what you can do to protect yourself.

Wildfires are becoming more frequent and destructive
California struggled with increasingly devastating and costly fire outbreaks throughout the state in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Across the world, wildfires burned in Australia from late 2019 through early 2020, creating unprecedented air quality issues lasting for months.

These types of fires are becoming more frequent and intense while lasting for longer durations due to climate change. Above-average temperatures and droughts create ideal conditions for wildfires to grow. These events also release enormous amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere, creating more air pollution and emissions.

What are you breathing in?
Smoke from wildfires includes a complex mixture of gases and fine particles, produced with the burning of wood and other organic materials, according to the Environmental Protection Agency's AirNow program.

The microscopic particles can make their way deep into your lungs, where they can lodge and cause inflammation. When the fire smolders, another threat is carbon monoxide, or CO. Breathing it in reduces the amount of oxygen delivered to your organs and tissues.

The health effects of wildfires
If you've been exposed to a significant amount of smoke, you may have burning eyes, a cough, a runny nose, phlegm, wheezing and perhaps breathing difficulties. If you are breathing in carbon monoxide, you may get a headache, feel nauseated or be dizzy.

Vulnerable people will likely have a tougher time. On that list:

  • Children
  • Older adults
  • Pregnant women
  • Anyone with diabetes, or chronic heart or lung issues

However, many of these effects are temporary, experts say. It's believed that most people will fully recover with no lasting problems. However, research on the long-term health consequences of wildfires, as well exposure to smoke for lengthier durations is sparse and ongoing. A September 2018 study even predicted that deaths due to chronic wildfire smoke inhalation could increase from 15,000 to 40,000 per year by the end of the 21st century.

Firefighters who respond to wildfires may be at greater risk for adverse effects, since their exposure to smoke is more frequent. This group can have increased risk for heart disease and cancer due to chronic smoke inhalation.

If symptoms like wheezing or shortness of breath persist or get worse, experts suggest you check in with your health care provider.

What may last longer than physical impacts are the mental health effects of these disasters. Stress, anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder can affect people impacted by natural disorders. If you are having trouble with any of these issues or coping with a disaster, don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider.

Protecting yourself: steps to take
Avoiding exposure is common sense, of course, but not always possible. If you choose to wear a mask, get a good one, the experts at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggest. Dust or surgical masks won't provide enough protection from the fine particles. Scarves and bandanas, whether wet or dry, aren't protective, either. Instead, go online, or to a home repair shop or a hardware store and get a mask labeled as N-95 or P-100. Be sure it fits tightly around your head.

If you are hunkered down indoors, keep that air as clean as you can. Unless it is stifling hot, keep the doors and windows closed. Run the air conditioner if you have one, but be sure the filter is clean so you aren't drawing in dirty air. Don't use fireplaces, candles or gas stoves, as they create new particulates in the house.

Before exercising outside, get air quality information. You can search on AirNow.gov or ask your smartphone to bring up the information. The index ranges from 0 to 500. Fifty and under is ''good.'' On the other end of the spectrum is "hazardous," when air quality is 301 to 500. The index takes five major pollutant levels into account, including particulate matter and carbon monoxide.

Bottom line? While most people will recover from any health issues related to wildfire smoke, it’s still important to be aware of your area’s air quality. And those who are more vulnerable to problems should be extra cautious.

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