Updated: June 29, 2023
The worrisome air conditions we are currently experiencing is due to smoke from wildfires in Canada spreading throughout many parts of the east coast of the United States.
Wildfires cause a large amount of smoke and pollutants to be released into the air. The smoke from wildfires can travel long distances depending on the wind.
We asked Dr. Purvi Parikh, MD, allergist and immunologist at NYU Langone and our national spokesperson, to answer important questions about air quality, wildfire smoke, and your health.
Q: What is an Air-Quality Index and how can I check the outdoor air quality before going outside?
A: The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the quality of outdoor air and its potential impact on your health. The AQI scale ranges from 0 to 500. Higher values indicate poorer outdoor air quality and increased health risks. The categories are usually “Good,” “Moderate,” “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups,” “Unhealthy,” “Very Unhealthy,” and “Hazardous.”
AQI Basics for Ozone and Particle Pollution
|Daily AQI Color
|Levels of Concern
|Values of Index
|Description of Air Quality
|0 to 50
|Air quality is satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
|51 to 100
|Air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a risk for some people, particularly those who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
|Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups
|101 to 150
|Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is less likely to be affected.
|151 to 200
|Some members of the general public may experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
|201 to 300
|Health alert: The risk of health effects is increased for everyone.
|301 and higher
|Health warning of emergency conditions: everyone is more likely to be affected.
You can check the real-time AQI information for your area on the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) website. Visit the EPA’s Air Now website. Enter your location to access the AQI for your area.
Q: What are the main health risks associated with exposure to wildfire smoke?
A: If you inhale small particles of smoke from wildfires, your lungs can become irritated. This can lead to coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Wildfire smoke and ash can also irritate your eyes, nose, and throat. People with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and other pre-existing conditions are at a higher risk of experiencing symptoms.
Q: Are there any long-term health effects from exposure to wildfire smoke?
A: Prolonged or repeated exposure to wildfire smoke may have long-term potential impacts on the cardiovascular and lung health of affected individuals. Smoke causes irritation and inflammation that can result in lung scars if exposure is long term.
Q: Who is most vulnerable to the health effects of wildfire smoke?
A: People who are especially vulnerable to the health effects of wildfire spoke include:
- people with pre-existing lung or cardiovascular conditions
- the elderly
- pregnant people
- outdoor workers
- people living close to the wildfires.
Smoke can be especially dangerous for pregnant people because they have diminished lung capacity due to their growing bellies. Smoke exposure can also cause preterm birth.
Q: How can we protect ourselves from the health risks of wildfire smoke?
A: To minimize exposure to wildfire smoke, stay indoors and keep windows and doors closed. Use high-efficiency air filters and air purifiers to help reduce indoor pollutant levels. When going outside, wear N95, KN95 or P100 masks to provide some protection. Monitor air quality indexes in your area and follow the guidance of local health authorities.
Q: Can people in other areas be affected by wildfire smoke?
A: Yes, wildfire smoke can travel long distances depending on wind patterns. Even if you are not near a wildfire, you may still experience poor air quality due to smoke carried over long distances. This is currently happening on the east coast due to wildfires in Canada. Monitoring air quality reports and taking precautions are important.
Q: What can you do to support your health during wildfire events?
A: During wildfire events, prioritize your health by following these tips:
- Stay hydrated.
- Keep windows and doors closed.
- Use an air filter (HEPA filter).
- Turn on your air conditioner and set it to recirculate mode.
- Avoid strenuous outdoor activities.
- Recirculate the air inside your car.
- If you must go outside, keep your quick-relief asthma inhaler with you.
These tips can help lessen the impact of wildfire smoke. Individuals with pre-existing health conditions should follow their healthcare provider’s advice and ensure they have enough necessary medications.
Q: What should I do if I still have symptoms after the air quality has returned to a normal level?
A: See your healthcare provider after the air quality improves if you continue to experience symptoms such as:
- difficulty breathing
- chest pain
Q: Is poor air quality bad for my pets?
A: Yes, poor air quality can be harmful to your pets as well. Animals can develop similar lung conditions as humans. During periods of poor air quality, it is advisable to limit the time your pets, such as cats and dogs, spend outdoors and keep them indoors as much as possible.
Being exposed to smoke from wildfires can have significant effects on our health, causing immediate lung and cardiovascular problems, as well as potential long-term consequences. It is important to be aware of the risks and take precautions to minimize the impact of wildfire smoke on our well-being. Stay informed. Prioritize your health. Follow the guidance of local authorities. Keep yourself protected until the air quality improves.