Wildfire Smoke and Your Health: What You Need To Know

As heat waves and historic drought cause wildfires to rage across the west, summer smoke has become the new normal. When you want to get outside to run, hike, bike, or even just work in your garden, poor air quality can be more than just unpleasant and inconvenient—it’s also unhealthy.

In fact, experts warn that breathing in wildfire smoke can be as bad for you as smoking cigarettes. That’s because wood smoke is filled with fine particles, called PM2.5 (2.5 micrometers in diameter or smaller), that can travel deep into your lungs. From there, they make their way into your bloodstream and circulate through your body.

Exposure to high levels of fine particulates can have negative health outcomes that include lung inflammation, weakened immune function, and greater susceptibility to respiratory infections. In other words, wildfire smoke doesn’t just make you more likely to contract COVID-19—recent research suggests it may result in more severe symptoms and a lower chance of survival.

A 2018 study also found that wildfire smoke harms the heart, not just the lungs. Short-term exposure to PM2.5 over a period of a few hours to weeks can trigger fatal and nonfatal cardiovascular events, including heart failure, arrhythmias, and strokes, especially for older adults, according to the American Heart Association. Long-term exposure may reduce life expectancy by several months to a few years.

Children, older adults, pregnant women, and people with preexisting heart and lung conditions are particularly at risk of suffering the ill effects of wildfire smoke.

Here are 5 tips to help keep you and your family healthy when smoke is in the air:

Check the AQI

Keep tabs on the outside air quality with an app such as Breezometer or Plume Labs Air Quality. When the AQI is unhealthy, stay inside as much as possible.

It’s especially important to avoid exercising outside when thick smoke is in the air. Even a 30-minute moderate-intensity cardio workout could result in breathing in high levels of pollutants, according to a 2018 study in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. If you absolutely must be outside to, say, walk the dog, when the air quality is unhealthy, then make it quick, go slow, and consider wearing a mask (see below).

If you choose to exercise indoors, then just be sure you’re in a place with healthy air. Zenergy, for example, uses a state-of-the-art air filtration and purification system to effectively trap smaller particles from air pollution as well as viruses and bacteria. Exercising in a house where the air may be contaminated isn’t a great idea.

Wear the right mask
When it’s necessary to go outside, N95 masks can be effective at keeping out fine particulate matter, but only if worn correctly. You need to maintain a good seal on your face for it to work. Cloth masks, while beneficial for fending off COVID, provide very limited protection against air pollution.

Keep indoor air clean

When the smoke is bad, do your best to keep it outside of the house.

Close your windows
As much as possible, keep all windows and doors closed. On hot days, use an air conditioner, if you have one—it’s designed to trap dust and small particles. Just don’t forget to clean the filter! Open the windows to air out the house when the air quality improves.

Purchase an air purifier
Central furnace or HVAC systems are designed to filter air throughout a home. While they can’t remove all pollutants, they’re your best option for fighting indoor air pollution. Look for one with a HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filter, which should be able to remove 99.97 percent of airborne particles.

If you can’t purify your entire home, designate a “clean-air room” with a portable air purifier or cleaner. Reducing the volume of air that a purifier must filter goes a long way in lowering concentrations of smoke particles.

Don’t add to the problem
Avoid using a wood fireplace, gas stove, candles, and anything else that burns. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors—try to avoid stirring them up by vacuuming or running a fan.

Use water to your advantage

Tap water can help minimize the ill effects of poor air quality.

  • Drink lots of water and other clear liquids to stay hydrated. This will keep your nose and mouth moist, making it easier to breathe.
  • Wash out your nose and gargle with water. Do this five times a day until the smoke subsides.
  • Take a shower and wash your clothing after being outside.

Choose healing foods

Eating a diet rich in vitamins and minerals has never been more important. Foods that lower inflammation and promote healthy blood vessels are especially beneficial for your heart and lungs.

As much as possible, stick to high-quality, nutrient-dense foods such as:

  • colorful fruits and vegetables (especially strawberries, blueberries, cherries, tomatoes, spinach, kale, and collards)
  • nuts such as almonds and walnuts
  • fish including salmon and mackerel
  • extra-virgin olive oil

Avoid refined carbohydrates (white bread and pastries), fried foods, processed meats, and soda and other sugary drinks.



For information about home air cleaners: Guide to Air Cleaners in the Home

For a list of certified air cleaning devices: California Certified Air Cleaning Devices

Learn the right way to use an N-95 mask: Protect Your Lungs from Wildfire Smoke