Smoke, Air Quality & Your Health

Smoke, Air Quality & Your Health

Smoke, Air Quality & Your Health

eagle creek fire

With all of the fires going on through out the country right now, we’re all hearing about avoiding our exposure and to stay indoors. But what more can we do? What practical things will help us?

In my area, in the Columbia Gorge, I personally am getting a little stir crazy and feeling suffocated. This is a deep instinctual survival response. For animals, when they smell smoke, it’s an alarm that goes off to get away. So, while my area isn’t in imminent danger, I, and many others, are having this survival response alarm go off. This feeling alone can increase heart rate and the need for oxygen. As much as you can, stay calm and know that the smoke will pass and that you are safe. A mantra I like is: “I am now completely relaxed in body and mind. I am receptive to nature’s harmonious and invigorating vibrations-they dispel the discordant and destructive vibrations of hurry, worry, fear, and anger. New life, new health, new strength are entering into me with every breath, pervading my whole being.” – Henry Lindlahr

Smoke symptoms

  • Irritated eyes

  • Cough, phlegm, or wheeze

  • Headaches

  • Shortness of breath, asthma attack, or lung irritation

  • Irregular heartbeat, chest pain or fatigue

Health wise, I’m concerned for my patients with asthma and other respiratory issues. The most concerning issue with wildfire smoke is the particulates in the air, not less oxygen available. There is more carbon monoxide (CO) in the air in wildfire smoke areas, but not enough to impact most individuals. CO devreases the oxygen carrying capacity of our cells. If you are being affected by CO you might notice headaches, dizziness, visual impairment, more muscular fatigue, and reduced manual dexterity, and in higher concentrations rarely seen with wildfire smoke can be deadly.

To keep things in perspective: Most healthy children and adults will recover quickly from smoke exposure. Also, we see increased particulate inhalation in cities, aka pollution, and with smokers or e-cig and second hand smoke. If you don’t live in a city and you aren’t a smoker or live with a smoker, a couple weeks of smoke in the air isn’t a huge health concern, unless you are a susceptible individual. If you are susceptible, pay attention to how you are feeling and seek medical care if you are feeling like you are not getting enough oxygen.

Susceptible folks & why

1.     Pre-existing respiratory condition: Asthma, airway hyperresponsiveness, COPD, chronic or acute bronchitis, etc.

2.     Children & infants, here’s why: Infants lungs are still developing and don’t have the same ability to stay healthy with increased particles in the air. They also breathe more often and inhale more air per pound of body weight than adults. Older kids tend to spend more time outside and engage in more vigorous activity, making them inhale more air than adults.

3.     Pregnant women, here’s why: There have not been any studies on pregnant women and wildfire smoke inhalation. What we have to go off of is studies of smokers and women who live in polluted cities. Not the best correlation in my opinion. However, if the woman has a respiratory condition this would make her more susceptible, OR if she is having any of the symptoms listed in the section above. The studies of polluted cities and smokers show higher rates of low birth weight infants. Keep this in mind if you are pregnant!

4.     Elderly, here’s why: This group is more likely to have a pre-existing respiratory or cardiovascular condition. Also, as we age our respiratory defenses that help us fight particulate matter in the air decline.

Also of concern is increased heat stress. With the hot weather we’ve been having, keeping windows and doors closed for people who rely on that for cooling the house off isn’t realistic. If you are susceptible to health issues from the wildfire smoke, and you don’t have air conditioning, I advise you stay with friends or family who do. If there are times when the outdoor air clears, take that opportunity and air out your house to reduce indoor air pollution.

Top 10 things to keep you healthy in a wild fire:

1.  Limit time spent outdoors and time spent doing vigorous activity when the smoke is thick.

2.  Stay hydrated, drinking 50% of your body weight in ounces of pure water minimum (ex. 150lb person would drink 75oz water/day). This will keep your mucous membranes healthy so they can filter out the particles.

3.  Increase antioxidants in your diet (fresh vegetables and fruits) to combat the increased oxidation your get with air pollution. Decrease sugar and alcohol, both of which will increase your need for anti-oxidants.

4.  Avoid cooking indoors, which will increase the indoor air pollution.

5.  Keep windows and doors in the house closed when air quality is poor. * see above section on heat stress.

6.  Invest in a HEPA air filter, which will remove the particulate matter from the air.

7.  Humidifier, while this won’t clean your air like a HEPA filter, it can help to keep mucous membranes healthy which protect us from air particles. If you are experiencing eye or airway/throat irritation, a humidifier might just do the trick.

8.  Avoid vacuuming, which can stir up dust, making the indoor air quality worse.

9.  To get an N95 respirator or a dust mask? An N95 respirator WILL filter out the smoke and particulates, BUT it's extremely difficult to get the right fit. If there are any areas where it's loose, you might as well not be wearing it. People who have to wear there for work take a whole training on how to get the right fit. A dust mask hasn't been studied for it's effectiveness on wildfire smoke. While it WILL filter out the larger particles and ash, it might not get the smaller inhaled irritants. The choice to wear a mask is an individual decision and on a case-by-case basis.

10.  If there is ash and other particles falling in the air, consider wearing goggles. I have gotten more than one piece of ash in my eye this week!

Stay Safe Out There!


Ammann, Harriett. (2001). Wildfire smoke: A guide for public health officials. Olympia, Wash.: Washington State Dept. of Health.

Oregon Public Health. (2014, April). Wildfire smoke and your health. Retrieved from

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