Cedars-Sinai Blog

How Does Wildfire Smoke Affect Your Health?

wildfire, smoke, air quality

Smoke from the 2016 Sand Fire that blew into the San Fernando Valley suburbs in Los Angeles.

When a wildfire strikes, the smoke it generates can pose a health threat—even if you live far from the flames.

The danger comes in the form of billions of particulates suspended in the air, which can drift for miles. These particulates make breathing difficult for everyone and can worsen symptoms for those living with asthma, allergies, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)


Wildfire smoke can cause adverse reactions in all people—no matter their general health. That's why taking precautions is important.


"Unfortunately whenever there's a wildfire, we see a lot of people with chronic respiratory problems whose symptoms get worse," says Dr. Peter Chen, director of the Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine.

"Although the long-term dangers of exposure to wildfire smoke are unclear, in the short term it can be harmful."

Symptoms of breathing wildfire smoke

Measured in microns, the particulates in wildfire smoke can reach the deepest recesses of lung tissues and set off inflammation.

Inhaling wildfire smoke can cause throat irritation, wheezing, sneezing, coughing, runny nose, congestion, chest discomfort, eye irritation, and shortness of breath—all triggered by the tiny particles in the smoke.

Allergy sufferers suffer more

Individuals living with allergies are at risk of worsening symptoms.

"People with allergies and asthma often have chronically inflamed airways, which makes them very sensitive to irritants like smoke," says Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an allergist-immunologist.

"They may experience worsening of their allergic symptoms or develop an asthma attack even to low levels of environmental smoke."



Protect yourself

Wildfire smoke can cause adverse reactions in all people—no matter their general health. That's why taking precautions is important.

During a wildfire, Dr. Chen and Dr. Cassel recommend taking these steps to protect your lungs:

  • Keep track of air quality ratings in your area to assess risk.
  • Minimize exposure by staying indoors as much as possible.
  • Protect your indoor air quality by keeping windows and doors closed.
  • Don't burn candles, vacuum, or use aerosol sprays—they're all sources of indoor pollution.
  • If your home has air conditioning or a high-efficiency particulate air filter, use it.
  • Avoid unnecessary exercise or exertion, both indoors and out.
  • If you do go out, reduce indoor pollution by showering and changing clothes when you return.
  • If you use a rescue inhaler, keep one on hand.
  • Pay close attention to symptoms and seek medical help at the first sign of trouble.

Although the long-term dangers of exposure to wildfire smoke are unclear, in the short term it can be harmful.


What about a face mask?

A face mask can be helpful, but it must be the right kind, say Dr. Chen and Dr. Cassel.

Bandanas and dust masks are too porous to do any good.

Only respirator masks rated N95 or P100 are able to block particulates, and only when they are perfectly fitted with absolutely no gaps anywhere on their perimeter. 

Because these types of masks can make breathing more difficult, it's a good idea to choose one with an exhalation valve. This makes breathing easier and reduces heat build-up.

And remember: All FDA-approved N95 respirators are labeled as "single use" and are disposable devices.


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The good news is that for most people the symptoms and effects that result from exposure to wildfire smoke are temporary, Dr. Cassel says. 

"The body is very effective in cleaning the mucosal surfaces," she says. "So, when the smoke is gone, the triggers resolve and the symptoms will resolve as well."