Eye irritation. Sore throat. Difficulty breathing. These are some of the symptoms that can develop from long-term exposure to the smoke and poor air quality caused by wildfires.

In many areas of the nation, particularly out west, wildfires are a serious threat. Today, these uncontrollable blazes burn more than twice as much area as they did thirty years ago. As the planet continues to heat up and drought becomes more widespread, wildfires are expected to increase in both number and severity.

Kevin Sherer, MD, a critical care physician and pulmonologist at Summit Health in Oregon has seen a recent increase in patients with respiratory symptoms, which he expects to continue throughout the wildfire season. Dr. Sherer shares answers to some of the most common questions patients ask him about the impact of wildfires on their health.

  1. Why is wildfire smoke hazardous?

Wildfire smoke contains harmful gasses and tiny particles of burnt material sometimes referred to as particulate matter. When the smoke is inhaled it can cause problems in the upper airway and the lungs. While certain people are generally more susceptible to the effects of smoke, this exposure can also impact perfectly healthy individuals.

  1. What types of health problems are caused by wildfire smoke exposure?

The most common symptoms of wildfire exposure include eye irritation, sore throat, runny nose, cough, and shortness of breath. More serious reactions include asthma and the exacerbation of pre-existing conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When the components in the smoke enter the bloodstream through the lungs, it can also cause inflammation and damage to blood vessels—a condition known as atherosclerosis. In rare cases, medical emergencies such as heart attacks may occur.

  1. How can you prevent or reduce the harmful effects of wildfire smoke?

With the proper precautions, you can limit your smoke exposure. There are several ways to prevent health problems, but the most important thing you can do is to avoid breathing in wildfire smoke as much as possible. Here are three tips everyone in high-risk areas should follow:

  • Stay indoors. When the air quality is poor, do not leave the house. If it is hot outside, use air conditioning for comfort and keep your windows shut. Car windows should stay closed. Avoid vigorous exercise outdoors.
  • Use a HEPA air filter. These devices remove harmful particulates from the air. Remember to change the air filters regularly. Stay away from electronic air cleaners—they do not clean the air safely and produce potentially harmful levels of ozone.
  • Wear a mask. Using an N95 mask can provide some protection. Do not rely on a cloth or surgical mask. Only an N95 mask can filter out fine particulate matter. Please note: while N95s are ideal, surgical masks are better than no mask.
  1. Who is most likely to experience health effects from wildfire smoke?

Certain individuals are at a greater risk of developing health problems from wildfire smoke. They include:

  • People with pre-existing lung diseases such as COPD and asthma, or heart conditions such as coronary artery disease.
  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • Elderly patients
  1. What should I do if I begin to experience symptoms?

If your symptoms are mild, such as eye irritation or a sore throat, you can use over-the-counter remedies. For more complicated problems related to breathing, including becoming winded when you exercise, it is important to call a pulmonologist. Serious problems including shortness of breath or chest pain should be addressed right away—if you think you are experiencing a true medical emergency, call 911 or have someone drive you to the closest emergency room.

  1. How can a pulmonologist help?

A pulmonologist specializes in the respiratory system and treats patients experiencing shortness of breath from smoke exposure. Asthma medications such as inhaled steroids may be prescribed. Elderly individuals with a history of chronic lung disease may need additional medications to manage their symptoms.

  1. Will wildlife smoke affect my pet too?

Yes. Dogs, cats, and other household animals will experience symptoms too! Keep your pet indoors when there is excessive environmental smoke.