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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.

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

People that are most sensitive to the effects from smoke are those with heart problems or respiratory conditions such as asthma and emphysema. Other sensitive groups include the elderly, children, and pregnant women

Exposure to smoke can irritate our eyes and respiratory system. People outside during smoke conditions 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 removed from the smoke. Irritation from smoke is a greater concern for sensitive individuals (see above) because the irritation can trigger more significant health effects. During periods when smoke is prominent in an area, precautions should be taken to minimize smoke exposure, thus reducing the likelihood of health effects.

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 for this type of air pollution event. 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.

Stay indoors as much as possible. When indoors, use air conditioning if available (see below). If it is necessary for you to be outdoors, reduce the time spent outside as well as the intensity of activities. Facemasks used to prevent Covid-19 exposure can also prevent exposure to wildfire smoke.

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. In addition to 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.

The best way to reduce smoke particles indoors is to close the doors and windows and use air conditioning (see above). During smoke events, try to minimize activities that generate particles inside such as vacuuming, smoking, and certain types of cooking, such as grilling. As a note, humidifiers and ozone generators do not reduce particle levels, and in the case of ozone generators, may actually decrease indoor air quality.

Under most circumstances, masks are not necessary for the general public during smoke events. Most masks, such as surgical masks, bandanas placed over own=s 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 an individual=s health. If a mask is necessary, a mask should be selected that fits the individual properly and contains HEPA filters, which remove small particles.

It is never a bad idea to minimize outdoor activities during smoke events, however, it is up to an individual's discretion on whether to cancel outdoor activities. The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) monitors the air pollutants in the state and may be able to provide information on the air quality in your area. You can access information on air quality from the TCEQ's Air Page. You may also contact your city or county health department for information on your local air quality.

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