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Wildfire smoke, other smoke-related events, and your health

Questions and answers about the effects of wildfire smoke, and other smoke-related events such as burning tires or burning mulch, on human health.

Why is smoke a health concern?

Smoke is a complex mixture consisting of thousands of chemicals, many of which are toxic. In addition, very small particles—smaller than the width of a human hair—in smoke can reach the lungs when inhaled. Once in the lungs, these particles can cause adverse health effects.

Who is most at risk from smoke exposure?

Those with heart problems or respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema. Other sensitive groups include the elderly, children, and pregnant women.

What kind of health effects occur from smoke?

Exposure to smoke can irritate the eyes and respiratory system. People outside when smoke is prominent may display symptoms of irritation such as tearing and redness of the eyes, excessive cough, and a burning sensation in the throat. However, these symptoms typically disappear quickly once the person gets out of the smoke. Irritation from smoke is a greater concern for sensitive persons (see above) because the irritation can trigger more significant health effects. When smoke is prominent in an area, take precautions to minimize exposure, reducing the likelihood of health effects.

Do the very small particles in smoke lodge in the lungs when inhaled and cause permanent damage?

The smaller smoke particles can enter the lungs and cause damage. However, this is not likely to be a concern for the majority of the general public exposed to smoke during smoke-related events such as wildfires, burning mulch, or burning tires for example. The limited time that people are exposed to the smoke will allow their systems to efficiently remove small particles that are inhaled and reduce the likelihood of damage.

How can I minimize my exposure to smoke?

Stay indoors as much as possible. When indoors, use air conditioning if available. If it is necessary for you to be outdoors, reduce the time spent outside as well as the intensity of activities.

Does using the air conditioner help?

Yes, using the air conditioner reduces the amount of smoke particles that enter your home. To reduce your exposure to smoke while driving, use the air conditioner in your car. Besides reducing exposure to smoke, air conditioning can reduce stress on your health by keeping the indoor environment cool. When using the air conditioner, use the “recycle” or “recirculate” mode. If you are unable to use air conditioning, and warm weather prohibits closing doors and windows, try to find a place where you can take advantage of air conditioning, such as the home of a neighbor or relative, or in a building like a shopping mall.

Are there other ways to reduce my exposure to smoke when I am indoors?

During smoke-related events, try to minimize activities that generate particles inside such as vacuuming, smoking, and certain types of cooking, such as grilling. Note that humidifiers and ozone generators do not reduce particle levels, and ozone generators may actually worsen indoor air quality.

Does wearing a face mask help protect against the smoke?

Under most circumstances, masks are not necessary for the general public during smoke-related events. Most masks, such as surgical masks, bandannas placed over the mouth, and paper masks worn for painting or mowing the lawn do not effectively remove small particles that are found in smoke. Also, wearing a mask can make breathing more difficult, which increases the stress on a person’s health. If a mask is necessary, select one that fits the individual properly and contains high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters, which remove small particles.

Should outdoor activities such as sporting events or camping be cancelled due to the smoke?

It is never a bad idea to minimize outdoor activities during smoke-related events; however, it is up to an individual’s discretion whether to cancel outdoor activities. The TCEQ monitors air pollutants in the state and may have information on the air quality in your area. You can access information on air quality from the TCEQ's Air page, or you may also contact your city or county health department.

Are my outdoor pets at risk from smoke?

Pets can be affected by smoke just as humans can. You may want to keep them inside during smoke-related events. Consult with your veterinarian if you believe your pet is being severely affected by smoke.