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California Wildfires Are Raging—and They Pose Major Health Risks

California Wildfires Are Raging—and They Pose Major Health Risks

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

Wildfires are currently raging in California, forcing countless residents to breathe in smoke.

As that smoke and ash fill the air, it's not unusual to see Californians wearing masks as they make their way to public transportation, shopping malls and other venues—and for good reason. The smoke generated from fires can certainly affect your health.

Here's what you should know to minimize the damage.

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

The smoke exposure can also worsen breathing problems in those with existing asthma or lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

However, many of these effects are temporary, experts say. Though research on the long-term health consequences of wildfires is sparse, it's believed that most people will fully recover with no lasting problems. If symptoms like wheezing or shortness of breath persist or get worse, experts suggest you check in with your health care 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.    

This article was updated in September 2019.  

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