A helicopter dropping water on a forest fire. Share on Pinterest
Wildfire smoke can cause dangerous levels of air pollution, posing significant short- and long-term health risks. Mooneydriver/Getty Images
  • Wildfire smoke can contribute to dangerous levels of air pollution, causing shortness of breath and an increased risk of infection.
  • Long-term exposure to wildfire smoke poses a greater risk for severe health issues like cancer.
  • There are many ways to protect yourself from wildfire smoke, including wearing a mask, staying indoors, and using air purifiers.

Canadian wildfires have recently sparked air pollution alerts across the United States, most notably in major cities like New York and Chicago, where air pollution reached hazardous levels.

Wildfire smoke has created poor air quality conditions for millions of people and may continue to do so for the duration of the season.

It’s not the first time large wildfires have caused such widespread health concerns; unfortunately, it likely won’t be the last.

According to experts, here’s how to protect yourself when the air outside becomes toxic and threatens your health.

“When harmful particles and chemicals in smoke enter the respiratory system, they trigger an inflammatory response as the body attempts to protect itself,” explained Dr. Manan Shah, founder of and chief medical officer at Wyndly, an allergy care company.

Chronic exposure can lead to more serious health conditions in the long term.

“For people with existing lung disease like asthma, bronchitis, or COPD, breathing in wildfire smoke can cause severe shortness of breath, increase mucous production, and can increase the risk for infection, which could require the need for antibiotics or even hospitalization,” said Doug Laher, chief operating officer of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC).

In addition, Laher said carbon monoxide — found in wildfire smoke — could reduce the blood’s ability to carry oxygen, thus straining the vital organs that require oxygen to operate effectively.

Prolonged exposure to smog, smoke, and other air pollutants can also pose a greater risk for more severe health issues like cancer.

If you live in an area where wildfire smoke is polluting the air, here are eight simple ways to protect your health.

Stay informed

Do you know how polluted the air is in your area? Understanding the air quality where you are is an important first step in your protection plan.

“Learn about the Air Quality Index (AQI) and what the number represents,” Laher advises.

“A low number, for example, less than 50, suggests the air quality outside is clean and poses little to no risk. An AQI of over 300 means the air outside is heavily polluted, is of great concern, and hazardous to breathe.”

To find out what the AQI is in your area, type AQI plus your zip code into Google.

Limit your time spent outdoors

Whether it’s going to work or nipping to the shop to stock up on groceries, being outside is an unavoidable part of life. However, both experts agree that you should limit time spent outside as much as possible.

It’s a good idea to judge air quality levels before deciding to leave your home. Shah said it’s especially important to stay indoors during exercise or other strenuous activities that increase breathing rates.

Wear a mask

If you must go outside, wear a mask. You’ll need one that covers both your nose and mouth. Shah and Laher recommend wearing an N95 respirator mask that can filter out fine particles in the smoke.

That said, it’s important to be realistic about just how much protection a mask will offer you. The best course of action is still to avoid exposure to wildfire smoke as much as possible.

Create a clean indoor environment

To keep your home clear from wildfire smoke, Laher advises investing in an air purifier. “Air purifiers with HEPA filters, pollutant sensors, and/or those with ionizing capabilities are best,” he said.

“Size matters too, so make sure to select an air purifier appropriately sized for the room you will use it in.”

Remember to keep windows and doors closed as well to prevent smoke from entering.

Look out for drafts

Wildfire smoke doesn’t just waft into your home via open windows and doors. You should be mindful of drafts too.

Examine your home and identify any gaps where smoke could waft in.

“If you have drafts coming from under doors, place a moist towel along the floor to prevent polluted air from entering your home,” Laher suggests.

Use air conditioners correctly

“If you are in your car and are using your air conditioner, make sure that that air is being re-circulated from inside your car,” Laher advises. “The same is true for window air conditioners in your home.”

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Don’t underestimate the importance of looking after yourself. If wildfires are threatening your health and safety and your home, it can be an incredibly stressful time. However, you shouldn’t neglect basic self-care during this time.

Shah said eating well, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep, and managing your stress levels will help your body cope with the potential inflammation caused by exposure to wildfire smoke.

Create an emergency plan

Wildfire conditions can unexpectedly worsen, so to protect yourself, it’s important to have an emergency plan in case of the worst-case scenario. Keep an eye on the AQI levels in your area and plan to evacuate should the pollution level hit unsafe levels.

Shah said your emergency plan should include identifying safe locations to go, packing essential items such as medications and important documents, and keeping your vehicle fueled up for a quick departure if necessary.

Prioritize respiratory health

Events like wildfires force us to think more seriously about our respiratory health and the quality of the air that surrounds us, at least in the short term.

But, with climate change, Shah said he believes respiratory health is something we’ll need to prioritize more and more.

“These are not and should not be one-off conversations, especially as our planet’s climate and air quality patterns continue to evolve,” Shah said.

“Breathing better is crucial for daily health maintenance and worth investing in beyond any one season.”

Shah concluded that whether you’re battling allergies, have sleep issues, or dealing with poor air quality, the breath holds immense health benefits, such as: