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How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke

Aug 20, 2020
By Spencer Blackman, MD

Updated June 5, 2023.

Wildfire season is upon us. We know there may be some confusion about how to best protect yourself from wildfire smoke so we’ve created a comprehensive guide to caring for you and your family during wildfires.

How wildfire smoke can affect your health

Depending on the size of the fire, smoke and ash can cause particulate matter to stretch hundreds of miles away from its origin. This means wildfire smoke can be dangerous for people beyond just those in the direct path of flames. These particulates are harmful pollutants that can make anyone sick, even those who are otherwise healthy. Symptoms of wildfire smoke may include the following:

  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing normally
  • Stinging eyes
  • A scratchy throat
  • Runny nose
  • Irritated sinuses
  • Wheezing and shortness of breath
  • Chest pain
  • Headaches
  • An asthma attack
  • Tiredness
  • Fast heartbeat

Protecting yourself from wildfire smoke is crucial for your overall health. According to the CDC, wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections. Older adults, pregnant women, and people with preexisting medical conditions, are also more likely to get sick from breathing in wildfire smoke. Other groups at risk of harmful effects from wildfire smoke include children, outdoor workers, and those who are immunocompromised or taking drugs that suppress the immune system.

How to prepare and protect yourself

As with any natural disaster, being prepared is the first step. We recommend having a two week supply of non-perishable food, water, and medications stocked and ready. Plan on stocking one gallon of water per person per day. Consider packing an emergency bag with three days’ supply of food and water, medications, change of clothes, copies of important documents and IDs, pet food and supplies, charging cables, and a first aid kit in case you need to evacuate your home at a moment’s notice. You may even set aside heirlooms, family photos, or other irreplaceable items in a separate bag or box to grab if you time and space allow.

If dangerous levels of smoke are affecting your community, avoiding or limiting exposure to the outdoors is the most important thing you can do to protect yourself. Avoid outdoor physical activity when the air quality is bad, especially if you’re in a high-risk group. Keep your windows and doors closed. If you have an air conditioner that recirculates air, this can help with the air quality in your home. Be sure your fresh-air intake is closed so you’re not pulling in smoky air. Consider purchasing an air purifier (HEPA) to create a cleaner air room in your home. It’s also important to avoid activities that can increase indoor pollutants such as burning candles, using gas stoves, or vacuuming.

Pay attention to local guidance about evacuation orders and shelters. If you are asked to evacuate, follow the orders of local officials about where to go and when. As you leave, keep the windows and doors or your car closed and run your air conditioning on recirculation mode. You should also wear your mask inside the vehicle. For more information on evacuation safety, see the CDC website.

Use of masks

Cloth face masks do not filter out the small, harmful particles in wildfire smoke. If you need to go outside, and want to avoid smoke exposure, wearing a particulate respirator mask rated N95 or P100 might offer some protection as long as it doesn’t worsen any symptoms you are experiencing. The mask should have two straps to go around your head (the masks with just one strap don’t provide enough protection). These are generally available at hardware stores, pharmacies, and online retailers. Departments of health and other local emergency officials may also offer masks during a wildfire emergency. Please note that N95 and P100 respirators are not suitable for children.

Finally, keep your eyes on local air quality reports. You can find regularly updated versions online that can help you make the safest choices for yourself and your family.

How One Medical can help

If you’re experiencing symptoms of exposure to wildfire smoke please contact our team through the One Medical app. We can also help you refill a prescription or fill a prescription at a different location if you have had to relocate due to the fires. If you are experiencing severe symptoms such as trouble breathing or chest pain, please call 9-1-1 immediately.

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Spencer Blackman, MD, One Medical Provider

Spencer practices relationship-centered primary care, blending a traditional sensibility with up-to-date clinical knowledge and a strong focus on disease prevention. He enjoys getting to know his patients well, educating and empowering them to participate in health care decisions. Spencer completed his residency training at UCSF and practiced primary care, urgent care, sports medicine and adolescent medicine throughout the Bay Area before joining One Medical Group. He is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Spencer is a One Medical Group provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

Any general advice posted on our blog, website, or app is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace or substitute for any medical or other advice. 1Life Healthcare, Inc. and the One Medical entities make no representations or warranties and expressly disclaim any and all liability concerning any treatment, action by, or effect on any person following the general information offered or provided within or through the blog, website, or app. If you have specific concerns or a situation arises in which you require medical advice, you should consult with an appropriately trained and qualified medical services provider.