Smoke from wildfires, wood stoves, and outdoor burning causes poor air quality that can hurt your health. Think about a different type of home heating and yard waste disposal.
Smoke is harmful to your health
Smoke is made up of gases and particles (also called particulate matter or PM) that can be dangerous if they're inhaled into your lungs. When a temperature inversion occurs, this smoke can be trapped close to the ground.
Smoke can irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. It can make you wheeze, cough, and cause shortness of breath and headache. It can make existing heart and lung conditions worse. Read more about how wood smoke harms your health.
Smoke may make symptoms worse for people who have pre-existing health conditions and those who are sensitive to air pollution. People most likely to have health problems from breathing smoke include:
- People with lung diseases such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including bronchitis and emphysema.
- People with respiratory infections, such as pneumonia, acute bronchitis, bronchiolitis, colds, or flu.
- People with existing heart or circulatory problems, such as irregular heart beat, congestive heart failure, coronary artery disease, and angina.
- People who have had a heart attack or stroke.
- Infants and children under 18 because their lungs and airways are still developing. They breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
- Adults over age 65 because they are more likely to have unrecognized heart or lung disease.
- Pregnant women because both the mother and baby are at increased risk of health effects.
- People who smoke because they are more likely to already have lower lung function and lung diseases.
- People with diabetes because they are more likely to have undiagnosed cardiovascular disease.
- People with, or recovering from, COVID-19 because they are more likely to have lower lung and heart function.
Smoke from wildfires can cause problems even if you are healthy, such as:
- Watery, stinging, or dry eyes.
- Persistent cough, phlegm, wheezing, scratchy throat, or irritated sinuses.
- Shortness of breath, asthma attack, or lung irritation.
- Irregular heartbeat, chest pain, or fatigue.
- Heart attacks.
- Some respiratory symptoms — including cough, sore throat, and difficulty breathing — are common to both wildfire smoke exposure and COVID-19.
People with pre-existing conditions or sensitive groups may have worsened symptoms.
Contact your health care provider if you have heart or lung problems when you're around smoke. Call 911 if symptoms are serious.
If you are indoors:
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible.
- Make a low-cost clean air fan. This simple fan-filter combination can reduce tiny, harmful particles in polluted air. Change the filter when it gets dirty.
- Keep windows and doors closed. Blow a fan directly on you to keep cool. Fans cool people, not rooms.
- Check current air quality regularly. Air quality conditions can change quickly. Open your windows for fresh air when air quality gets better.
- Use a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter in your furnace to reduce indoor air pollution. Change the filter when it gets dirty.
- Set your air conditioner on recirculate so dirty air doesn't come inside.
- Air purifying machines may help remove smoke particles indoors, but they don't remove gases and odors.
- Don't add more air pollution: Avoid smoking, using a wood stove or fireplace, burning candles or incense, or vacuuming.
- Reduce physical activity inside when air quality outside is at or above the "unhealthy" category.
- Leave the area affected by wildfire smoke, if you can't keep the indoor air clean.
If you are outdoors:
- Check current air quality regularly. Air quality conditions can change quickly.
- The best respiratory protection is to wear an N95 or N100 mask. However, these are in short supply because of COVID-19 and they need to be saved for medical workers. A paper mask, dust mask, or cloth mask will help a little bit, but won't filter out fine particles or hazardous gases in smoke.
- Wear goggles to protect your eyes from ash and fine dust.
- Avoid strenuous outdoor activity.
- Delay mowing the lawn and refueling your vehicle until the air is clear.
- Drink plenty of water.
- If you are in a sensitive group, reconsider any outdoor activities.
- Keep car windows rolled up, with the air conditioner set to recirculate to avoid bringing in dirty air.
- Leave the area affected by wildfire smoke, if you can.
High levels of smoke may irritate your animal’s eyes and respiratory tract. Reduce their exposure to smoke:
- Reduce the time spent in smoky areas.
- Give them plenty of water.
- Limit activities that will increase their breathing.
- Reduce their exposure to dust or other air pollutants.
If your animal is coughing or having difficulty breathing, contact your veterinarian.
The decision to cancel or close a school or business is made by each school district or business, usually with advice from the local health department. Adults in sensitive groups and children are more likely to have health problems from breathing smoke.
Make a clean air fan
Learn how to make a low-cost clean air fan. This simple fan-filter combination can reduce the amount of the tiny, harmful particles you breathe from wildfire smoke, wood smoke, dust, vehicle exhaust, and pesticide spray. Use it in a small room, with the windows and doors closed.
When air pollution from wood smoke is unhealthy, Ecology or local clean air agencies issue air quality burn bans.
People who burn wood for heat have more respiratory problems. To protect your health, consider switching to natural gas or electric for home heating. If that's not an option, make sure you are using a Washington-certified wood burning device.