Health Effects of Wildfire Smoke Inhalation
A Comprehensive Guide to Learn About the Risks of Wildfire Smoke and How You Can Protect Yourself and Your Family.
By Jaimie Hart
12 min read
We updated this post in December 2021 to reflect recent studies about the potential neurological impacts of wildfire smoke. Recommended products reflect current prices and availability.
The United States has experienced an increase in the number of wildfires, particularly on the west coast. These wildfires have also become more intense, with roughly 10.3 million acres burned in 2020 alone. This is a drastic surge compared to the 4.7 million acres that were burned in 2019, so it doesn’t appear that wildfires will be calming down.
The catastrophic damage to land, property, and wildlife is significant due to wildfires. Another main concern is how these wildfires can have serious adverse effects on human health. Smoke from wildfires can spread across the globe due to strong air currents. Therefore, everyone can benefit from learning how to protect their health from the chemicals and toxic particles that can spread with smoke — not just residents in California and the west coast.
Causes of Wildfires
It’s important to understand the causes of wildfires so that you can avoid large amounts of exposure. Climate change and human behaviors directly impact wildfire trends, and many regions are at risk of large and sustained wildfires every year. Global average temperatures have increased about 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit in the last hundred years, and researchers predict that temperatures will continue to rise in the next several decades.
The increase of heat on our planet creates more dry climates and prolonged droughts. As a result, environments are more susceptible to wildfires as fuel sources become more flammable in these dry conditions. Global temperatures are also creating more intense weather, and 46% of wildfires in the National Forests and Grassland were caused by lightning during the last decade.
Most wildfires are human-made, including neglect with campfires, cigarettes, and other accidents. Bonfires, campfires, and open burnings are often prohibited to reduce wildfires and pollution in many dry climates. Obstructed power lines and electrical issues are also often the culprit for destructive wildfires.
These are the leading causes of wildfires:
- Weather events such as lightning
- Open burning: Burning campfires, bonfires, fire pits
- Cigarettes and irresponsible disposal of smoking products
- Power lines
- Electrical issues
- Rekindle: re-ignition of a previous fire
Effects of Wildfires
Wildfires have numerous and life-changing impacts on life and the planet, and this is due to the dangers created by fires and smoke. Wildfire smoke is one of the most significant contributors to air pollution across the globe. The fires also cause catastrophic damage to land, property, ecosystems, the environment, habitats, and humans and animals’ lives.
Smoke inhalation from wildfires poses many threats, and identifying the health effects will help you understand why it’s crucial to implement prevention methods. The composition of wildfire smoke can carry many pollutants that trigger health issues, and several factors influence it.
Here are some influences that dictate the composition and particulate matter in wildfire smoke:
- Flame temperature
- Weather conditions
- Type of vegetation burned
- Moisture content
The particulate matter that encompasses wildfire smoke is 90% of very tiny particles that can quickly get into your home, and therefore your respiratory system. The smoke and particles within it can travel considerable distances if weather permits, exposing most parts of the country to chemicals and pollutants. This means that every person should be aware of wildfires’ health effects, and no one is immune to the risks and symptoms.
Wildfire Smoke Health Effects
Inhaling the fine particulate matter contained in wildfire smoke causes significant health impacts. While individuals with specific health concerns or allergies can have more significant reactions, the average human can get sick and experience long-term effects from wildfire smoke inhalation. Wildfires also create harmful gases, including these dangerous pollutants:
- Carbon monoxide (CO)
- Nitrous acid (HNO2 )
- Volatile organic compounds (VOCs)
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs)
- Nitrous oxide (N2O)
- Nitrogen oxides (NOx )
- Heavy metals
Wildfire can be composed of several of these compounds plus thousands more. The health concerns caused by wildfire smoke’s gases and particulate matter include triggers to pre-existing conditions, as well as the ability to expose people to health issues they didn’t already have. Wildfire smoke also contributes to almost 400,000 deaths worldwide each year, significantly contributing to global mortality.
The chemicals, gases, particles, ash, and soot from wildfire smoke cause the following health concerns:
- Difficulty breathing
- Asthma attacks
- Respiratory illnesses
- Eye irritation
- Congestion and sneezing
- Coughing and wheezing
- Elevated blood pressure and heart rate
- Decreased heart variability
Diseases and conditions:
- Respiratory illnesses
- Cardiovascular disease
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
- Neurological issues
Studies show that wildfire smoke can also lead to premature mortality as it causes long-term health issues. Wildfire smoke inhalation can also lead to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases that cause inflammation, cell toxicity, and oxidative stress. Pregnant women, children, older adults, and people with pre-existing medical conditions have a higher risk of developing severe health symptoms.
Wildfire Smoke Impacts On Your Home
Since the microscopic particles of wildfire smoke can easily be carried by the wind and seep into your home, there are other impacts on your living spaces to consider. One main annoyance with wildfire is the odor that it creates. Strong odors from wildfire smoke are persistent and very difficult to remove.
The soot carried with wildfire smoke can also cover surfaces in your home. The soot can easily disperse and settle on your property, creating damage and a pain to clean. Luckily, some DIY prevention methods and products help you avoid the nuisances that come with wildfire smoke.
How Air Purifiers Protect You From the Effects of Wildfire Smoke
Many air purifiers come with both HEPA and carbon filters, which are recommended when dealing with wildfire smoke. Some products are best for reducing specific symptoms and concerns. We gathered five of the best air purifiers to help solve your issues and limit wildfire smoke’s health effects.
How To: Get Rid of Smoke Smell
- Find an air purifier with a multi-stage filtration system that includes a true HEPA and activated carbon.
- Look for an air purifier with an added ionizer feature, but don’t buy products advertised as solely air ionizers.
- Check the room coverage size and weight to find an air purifier that protects your entire living space or is easily transportable from room to room.
- Look for deodorization filters and features that trap odors
Finding out how to get rid of the smoke smell can be a tedious process, and an air purifier can do most of the work for you. The right air purifier will include a filtration system with a true HEPA filter, activated carbon, and more features that trap and reduce odors. Wildfire smoke odors may be the toughest to get rid of. An air purifier will capture the maximum amount of odors and save you from spending too much time and money applying air fresheners around your home.
While air ionizers alone aren’t effective at removing harmful air particles, they work alongside HEPA filtration to trap contaminants and reduce odors. The ionizer captures pollutants with negative ions that attach to dust and allergens. Some air purifiers also come with deodorizing filters, so you’re not just cleaning the air, but you are reducing odors as well.
Activated carbon filters are also particularly great at getting rid of wildfire smoke smells in your home. They adsorb smelly gases that stick to the carbon filter, and this means those gases won’t just linger in the air in your home. You can find an air purifier with all of these filters and features, and protect your family allergies and other health risks resulting from wildfire odors and smoke inhalation.
How To: Get Rid of Soot
- Find an air purifier with a high-efficiency true HEPA filter
- Place your air purifier in an area where you spend most of your time
- Wipe down countertops and surfaces with cleaning products that remove soot and odors
- Use soap and disinfectant to clean soot off of walls
- Dust and clean personal items with a damp cloth to remove fine particles and smoke smells
- Clean all fabrics in your home, including curtains
- Vacuum floors with a HEPA filter vacuum
- Hire a professional carpet cleaner to remove lingering smoke smells
How To: Choose The Best Carbon Filter For Adsorbing Chemicals
- Find an air purifier with more than five pounds of activated carbon
- Make sure the activated carbon filter has a high dwell time
- Check the costs of carbon filter replacements
- Find out how often you need to change the activated carbon filter
- Make sure that the air purifier’s coverage area can protect the size of your room
- Ensure that your air purifier has a true HEPA filter and multi-stage filtration system
Activated carbon utilizes a chemical reaction and adsorption process to reduce odors and gases dangerous to your health. HEPA filters have you covered on trapping allergens, bacteria, and air particles. Carbon filters take care of the rest of the health concerns, which happen to be very prevalent in wildfire smoke.
Since the dangers of wildfire smoke inhalation include the effects of harmful gases and pollutants, you need an air purifier that includes a carbon filter to limit these risks. The adsorption process of carbon induces a chemical reaction with wildfire smoke compounds, and this causes the compounds to stick to the surface of the carbon filter instead of staying in the air. This chemical reaction also traps the wildfire smoke odors.
To find the best-activated carbon air purifier, you should first make sure that it includes over five-carbon pounds. The higher the amount and thickness of carbon, the more chemicals can be adsorbed and faster. It may be another filter you have to change every six months, but you’ll get the comprehensive benefits and protection from wildfire smoke you and your family need.
Preventing Negative Effects on Health and Homes Due to Wildfire Smoke
Some DIY tips for limiting the risks of wildfire smoke start with creating a healthy and protective environment in your home. You can set up a cleanroom that reduces your exposure by preventing smoke from entering the particular space. Ensure that doors and windows are closed and have a sealant applied to any air holes in the home. You can also install a high-efficiency filter to your HVAC system to help clean the air in your home.
The most effective method for avoiding health issues, odors, and other harmful effects of wildfire smoke is using an air purifier. An air purifier filters harmful air particles, gases, and chemicals out of the air in your home. Many features come with an air purifier, allowing you to protect an entire living space and handle multiple concerns at once.
How To: Prevent Wildfire Smoke Allergies
- Find an air purifier that has a high-efficiency HEPA filter to capture allergens of all sizes
- Look for an activated carbon filter to reduce VOCs and odors that you may be allergic to
- Find an air purifier that either offers a large coverage area or portability
- Make sure that you wipe down surfaces that they’re free of soot and large smoke particles
- Vacuum and clean floors that may have collected allergens
Can wildfire smoke cause headaches or trigger asthma attacks? Wildfire smoke inhalation causes these painful and dangerous symptoms and more due to allergens and noxious gases. Microscopic particles can easily get into your home and respiratory system, so they’re often undetectable.
Pollutants in the air can create trouble breathing, chest pain, itchy and watery eyes, sinus issues, and respiratory illness. You may not even realize you have an allergy to one of the thousands of compounds in wildfire smoke until you experience it. Air purifiers with activated carbon can adsorb VOCs such as ammonia and formaldehyde, increasing the risk of developing inflammation and asthma. It’s best to find an air purifier with an excellent filtration system that captures allergens before you can be exposed.
You must find an air purifier that includes a quality HEPA filter that removes allergens whether they’re small or large. Activated carbon filters will also reduce the chemicals, gases, and odors you could be allergic to. Fortunately, you can find an air purifier that traps smoke in large spaces and can be transported wherever you may be most at risk.
Air purifiers with an efficient true HEPA filter are perfect for removing smoke and particles left by soot. They reduce indoor pollution and trap dangerous air particles of small and large sizes. This also offers significant relief for people allergic to soot by reducing allergens from spreading in your home.
To reduce soot and wildfire smoke health concerns, you should strategically place your HEPA filter where you’ll get the most benefit. This is where you spend most of your time, which could be next to your bed or in a central part of a living space. You can also find a portable air purifier that’s lightweight and move it where you need it throughout the day.
Avoid “ionic air purifiers” and “ozone air purifiers” since they don’t remove fine particulates in soot, as well as a HEPA filter, does. Wildfire smoke mainly consists of fine ash particles and soot, so a combination of a high-efficiency HEPA filter and an activated carbon filter will get rid of the harmful chemicals and soot particles effectively. With the help of a HEPA air purifier, you won’t have to worry about your health or cleaning up messy soot off surfaces in your home.
How To: Prevent Wildfire Smoke From Spreading In Large Homes
- Find an air purifier that has a large coverage area of at least 1,500 square feet
- Make sure that the air purifier has a carbon filter with more than 5 pounds of carbon
- Ensure that your air purifier has a multi-stage filtration system with a true HEPA filter
- Look for an air purifier that’s lightweight if you want portability
- Find an air purifier with a quiet filtration system for minimal distractions
- Check if the air purifier has multiple filtration speeds to choose from
Many people want to make sure that large living spaces are protected, especially if you have a family that will need to use most of the house. You may even have guests or college kids home for the holidays, so making sure that every area is free of wildfire smoke and other dangers are extremely important. You’ll ideally want to find an air purifier that can protect over 1,500 square feet of living space.
One option is to buy an air purifier for each room of your home, but many of us don’t have that luxury. Consider using a lightweight air purifier that you can easily take with you from room-to-room or even on-the-go. One air purifier with a very large coverage area can be used for your entire home or a dedicated cleanroom.
Air purifiers that include a multi-stage filtration system with a HEPA and activated carbon are ideal for reducing smoke inhalation risks. You can also benefit from systems with noise reduction benefits, multiple speeds, and fit easily in your home. Many air purifiers on the market now include both things you and your family need to feel protected — a large coverage area and quality filtration systems that effectively get rid of wildfire smoke.
Best Air Purifier for Wildfire Smoke
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Better Air Purifier for Wildfire Smoke
Good Air Purifier for Wildfire Smoke
2nd Good Air Purifier for Wildfire Smoke