Forest Fires and Respiratory Health Fact Sheet

Wildfires are an ongoing concern where there is dry, hot weather. During a wildfire, people throughout the surrounding area may suffer the effects of forest fire smoke. If you have respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema and bronchitis or a chronic heart disease, we urge you to monitor your breathing and exposure to airborne matter. If problems develop call your physician immediately.

General Recommendations

  • Stay indoors: People living in close proximity to the fire-stricken areas should remain indoors and avoid inhalation of smoke, ashes and particulate matter in the area.
  • Don't count on a dust mask: Ordinary dust masks, designed to filter out large particles, will not help as they still allow the more dangerous smaller particles to pass through. Special, more expensive dust masks with true HEPA filters will filter out the damaging fine particles, but are difficult for people with lung disease to use. Consult with your physician before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.
  • Don't exercise outside: If you live close to or in the surrounding area, it's recommended that you refrain from exercising outdoors, especially if you smell smoke or notice eye or throat irritation.
  • Take precautions for kids: Extra precaution should be taken for children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their respiratory systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and consequently more pollution) per pound of body mass than adults.
  • Roll up your car windows: When driving your car in smoky areas, keep your windows and vents closed. Air conditioning should only be operated in the "recirculate" setting.
  • Put air conditioners on recirculate: Stay inside as much as possible, with doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut and preferably with clean air circulating through air conditioners and air cleaners. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved into the room.

If You Have Respiratory Problems or Chronic Heart Disease

  • Keep an eye on symptoms: Due to the higher levels of pollutants in some areas, there is a possibility of experiencing increased symptoms. If you are experiencing symptoms, please try to contact your physician. If you cannot, asthma patients can follow the asthma action plan developed with their physician. Use your peak flow meter if prescribed. Do not hesitate to take your medication, and avail yourself of the full spectrum of medications your doctor has prescribed to you.
  • Check in with your doctor: People with asthma should check with their physician regarding any changes in medication that may be needed to cope with the smoky conditions.
  • Ask about your oxygen use: People using oxygen should not adjust their levels of intake before consulting a physician. (Call your doctor BEFORE you take any action.)
  • Know when to seek medical attention: If pulmonary symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for: wheezing, shortness of breath, difficulty taking a full breath, chest heaviness, light headedness, and dizziness. If you have any concerns or questions please contact your physician.
  • Watch for breathing issues after exposure: If you develop a persistent cough, or difficult or painful breathing, call your physician. The onset of symptoms can appear as late as 24 to 48 hours after exposure and that smoke can remain in areas for many days after the fires have ended.

Clean Up

Residents and volunteers should use caution during clean-up because the process involves ashes and other particulates.

  • Avoid dust and soot: People with lung or heart problems should avoid clean-up activities and areas where dust or soot are present.
  • Reduce airborne particulates: Thoroughly wet dusty and soot area prior to clean-up. This will help to reduce the amount of particulates becoming airborne.
  • Cover your face: Wear an appropriate dust mask during clean-up.
  • Do not disturb: If exposure to asbestos or other hazardous materials are suspected, do not disturb the area. Dust masks do not protect against asbestos.

External Resources

For more information on respiratory health please contact our Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA.