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Hazy view of the Chicago skyline.
Hazy view of the Chicago skyline.

Wildfire Smoke in the Air: What Are the Health Effects?

Short- and Long-Term Implications

When wildfire smoke travels through the air, it can affect your health, even if you are not in the immediate vicinity of the fire.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wildfire smoke can harm anyone, but there are certain groups of people who are at a higher risk. These sensitive groups include children, pregnant people and people with:

“The people who are the most vulnerable are children and teens, older people, people with chronic lung diseases and people with heart conditions,” explains Ravi Kalhan, MD, Northwestern Medicine deputy division chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine. “When they are exposed to and inhale wildfire smoke, which is mostly made up of fine particles, those particles are tiny enough to get deep into the lungs and trigger an inflammatory response in the body, which can worsen chronic health conditions.”

When wildfire smoke is making the air quality unsafe, Dr. Kalhan advises people, especially those in sensitive groups, to stay inside. The CDC has guidance on how you can check the air quality where you are located.

Effects and Prevention

According to the CDC, wildfire smoke can cause immediate negative effects on your health, including:

  • Coughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Headaches
  • Irritated throat and sinuses
  • Stinging eyes
  • Chest pain

Even if you are not in a sensitive group, you can be affected if there is enough smoke in the air or if you have been exposed long enough.

Dr. Kalhan says some ways to prevent and mitigate sickness from wildfire smoke are:

  • Use an air purifier if you have one. This can help remove dangerous particles in the air.
  • Keep your windows closed. Additionally, avoid vacuuming and burning candles, which can both stir up particles that are already inside your home.
  • If you have central air conditioning, run the fan. Also consider upgrading your filter to one that better captures fine particles.
  • If you can, wear an N95 mask if you must go outdoors. These masks can protect you from inhaling dangerous particles.

“If people are consistently exposed to these things, it can cause long-term risks for heart and lung diseases,” explains Dr. Kalhan. “Luckily, these high-intensity exposures have usually only lasted a few days, but with climate change and increasing exposure to wildfire smoke on a sustained basis, it does create long-term risk for the public health.”