Wildfire smoke can cause irritating symptoms for healthy people and more serious health issues for people with respiratory issues and heart and lung disease. It’s important to know how to protect yourself and your family from smoky air whenever possible.
Who is most at risk for harmful effects of smoke?
Infants and young children suffer more from smoke because they breathe more air than adults do for their body size. Older adults and people with lung and heart conditions also are especially sensitive to smoke in the air. Even low levels of smoke can cause breathing problems for sensitive groups that have asthma, COPD, and other chronic lung diseases. And for people with chronic heart conditions, smoky air can increase the risk of heart attack or stroke. Smoke can also increase risk of premature birth in pregnant women.
When should we become concerned about the symptoms of smoke exposure?
Common effects of smoke exposure include irritated eyes, nose, and throat. However, if you have shortness of breath, chest pain or tightness, headaches, fatigue, or a combination of those symptoms and they become severe, you should call your doctor immediately.
What if I have an event outside or my child has a game that we can’t miss and the air quality is low?
Visit the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality’s air quality website or the Idaho Smoke Information Blog to check local air quality conditions. The Department of Health and Welfare also provides activity guidelines for outdoor events and other resources to help determine your risk level. If an outside event or game isn’t canceled because of air quality, drink plenty of water and do your best to limit your time outside. If smoke-related symptoms become difficult or get a lot worse, move indoors. Your family’s health is more important than a sporting event.
Should we consider masks when air quality is poor?
We don’t recommend masks for several reasons. Mainly, dust and surgical-type masks do not reduce the amount of smoke you breathe because they do not stop smoke particles. While respirator masks (e.g. N95 respirators) might seem like a good idea, they are difficult to adjust for a correct seal to your face and they can stress your body more than the smoke. Your best bet is to stay inside in an air-conditioned area and out of the smoke as much as you can.
How can we limit our exposure to smoke?
When air quality is poor, you should reduce your time and activities outside as much as possible. Stay indoors, in an air-conditioned area, if you can. If you don’t have air conditioning, go someplace that does, like the mall or library. Otherwise, there are several things you can do to limit the smoky air you breathe:
- Keep your windows and doors closed.
- If you have central air conditioning, use an air filter rated MERV 8 or higher and turn your system fan setting to on.
- If you have to drive in smoky areas, keep all windows closed and turn the vehicle air flow to recirculate to reduce the amount of smoke in the vehicle. Use caution and slow down when driving in smoky conditions.
- Do not add to indoor air pollution (e.g. burn candles, use propane/wood-burning stoves, aerosol sprays, smoke tobacco products, or vacuum.) All of these and more can increase air pollution indoors.
- Change air-conditioning filters more frequently as they may become clogged or dirty.
- Use portable air clearers to reduce indoor air pollution.
- Pay attention to local air quality reports and health warnings.
Where do I go for more information?
Please visit the resources listed below for up-to-date information on smoke conditions and resources on how to stay healthy during wildfire smoke events:
Christopher Paczocha is the Environmental Health Program manager for the Department of Health and Welfare.
The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare is dedicated to strengthening the health, safety, and independence of Idahoans. Learn more at healthandwelfare.idaho.gov.