Cedars-Sinai Blog

How Air Quality Affects Your Health - Tips for Wildfire Season

A city covered in smog
Cedars-Sinai pulmonologist Isabel F. Pedraza, MD

Isabel F. Pedraza, MD

It's wildfire season in many parts of the country, and inhaling smoke from wildfires can be harmful to your health. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wildfire smoke contains particle pollutants that can cause health problems such as asthma, chronic lung disease, heart attack and stroke.

A recent study of the Camp Fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in the history of California, found that the smoke it generated, which polluted the air for a full two weeks, contained elevated levels of chemicals such as lead, zinc and iron.

Even if you aren't near a wildfire when it starts, the smoke can travel for hundreds of miles, says Dr. Isabel Pedraza, pulmonologist and director of the Medical Intensive Care Unit at Cedars-Sinai.

"Wildfire smoke can cause inflammation in the lungs," Dr. Pedraza says. "Anytime you have increased exposure to air pollution, you increase your risk of developing a lung condition or exacerbating your symptoms."

"Avoid going outside when the air quality is poor. If you can smell smoke, that's a pretty good indication that the air you are breathing contains particle pollutants"

Stay alert of the air quality in your area

During wildfire season, it's important to take steps to protect your lungs. Monitor the air quality in your local area and be proactive.

"Avoid going outside when the air quality is poor," Dr. Pedraza says. "If you can smell smoke, that's a pretty good indication that the air you are breathing contains particle pollutants."

On days when the air quality is poor, try to avoid exercising outside.

"While I know a lot of people like to exercise outdoors, you may be putting yourself at risk of developing asthma by going outside and inhaling these particles," Dr. Pedraza says.

Wear a face mask during fire season, even if you don't have an N95

Face masks can be a good way to protect yourself from inhaling wildfire smoke.

Dr. Pedraza says that N95 respirators are the best in terms of protection, but can be difficult for most people to wear for prolonged periods of time.

"The problem with most face masks, unless they are tight-fitting, is that small particles can still get in and around the mask," Dr. Pedraza says. "N95 masks work by forming a tighter seal on the face, which prevents you from inhaling even tiny particles that contain viruses or bacteria."

However, wearing any type of face mask—even a cloth one—is better than not wearing one at all, as it still prevents some inhalation of particle pollutants, Dr. Pedraza says.

Get an air purifier for your home to improve air quality indoors

Improving the air quality in your own home is another way to protect yourself from the harmful health effects of wildfire smoke.

Dr. Pedraza recommends using an air purifier with an HEPA filter, which will filter out smoke particulates.

"You don't need to buy an expensive one for your home, but make sure you get an air purifier with an HEPA filter that's effective in filtering out air pollution and fire smoke," Dr. Pedraza says.

According to the EPA, air purifiers fitted with HEPA filters can reduce particle concentrations by as much as 85%.

Take precautions to keep kids' lungs healthy

Protecting children and young adults from smoke is another concern during wildfire season.

Air pollution can affect lung development, and children could be more at risk for the long-term health effects of fire smoke. Your lungs take time to fully develop and do not mature until you are about 20-25 years old.

Dr. Pedraza says that if the air quality is bad or there are fires in the area, don't let kids play outside, or have them wear a face mask.

"It's important to protect your kids from these levels of air pollution," Dr. Pedraza says. "You don't want to expose kids to an increased risk of asthma and other long-term health conditions."

If you or your children are experiencing symptoms that may be caused by fire smoke, such as coughing, eye irritation, wheezing or shortness of breath, talk to your doctor, who can refer you to a lung specialist if needed.