The smell of smoke or burning materials from a fire can sometimes cause health effects, even if you are not close to the fire. This is because smoke contains many chemicals that can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Breathing in smoke should always be avoided. But for people who are further away, the potential for harm depends on factors like the size of the fire, wind direction, length of exposure and a person’s individual sensitivity.
What is in smoke that can affect health?
Smoke is made up of gases, vapors, and tiny particles. The makeup of smoke varies and depends on what is burning. Some of the harmful ingredients in smoke include:
- Carbon monoxide – An odorless, colorless gas that can cause headache, dizziness, weakness, nausea, confusion, and other symptoms. At high levels it can be deadly.
- Formaldehyde – An irritating gas that can cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain and eye irritation.
- Acrolein – A vapor that irritates the eyes and respiratory tract.
- Particulate matter – Microscopic particles that can get lodged in the lungs and could cause coughing, chest tightness and worsening of heart and lung conditions like asthma or COPD.
- Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) – Chemicals that can cause lung, skin and bladder cancer after long periods of exposure.
The types of chemicals present depend on what material is burning. For example, smoke from burning plastics contains different toxins compared to smoke from burning wood.
How far away from a fire is the smoke dangerous?
The potential for smoke to impact health generally decreases the farther away you are from the fire itself. But under certain conditions, smoke can travel distances and reach populations far from the fire:
- Larger fires tend to generate more smoke that can travel longer distances.
- Wind can carry smoke many miles and affect air quality for communities downwind.
- Time of exposure also matters. Brief exposure to smoke from far away may cause minor irritation. But longer exposure can create bigger problems.
- Geography like mountains or valleys can trap smoke and pollutants, leading to more concentrated exposure.
During wildfires, public health agencies carefully monitor air quality using tools like the Air Quality Index (AQI). They issue warnings when smoke levels reach unhealthy concentrations so people can take safety precautions.
What are the potential symptoms from inhaling smoke?
The types of symptoms smoke can cause depends on the length of exposure and closeness to the fire. Potential symptoms include:
- Eye irritation – stinging, watery eyes
- Nose and throat irritation – runny nose, scratchy throat, sneezing
- Wheezing, coughing or difficulty breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- Racing heart rate
- Headache, dizziness or fatigue
Smoke from large fires can also irritate skin and cause rashes or itching. Severe smoke exposure can lead to decreased lung function, bronchitis or worsening of conditions like asthma, emphysema or COPD. Long term exposure has been linked to increased risk of lung cancer.
For healthy individuals, symptoms from moderate smoke exposure are often temporary and improve once the person gets to an area with cleaner air. But smoke can cause severe and lasting problems, especially for people with pre-existing lung or heart conditions.
|Distance from fire||Potential effects|
|Within 1/4 mile||Greater risk of severe symptoms like wheezing, chest pain, headache and nausea.|
|1/4 – 1 mile||Moderate irritation possible including coughing, scratchy throat and irritated eyes.|
|Over 1 mile away||Most healthy adults unlikely to have symptoms. Higher risk for sensitive groups like those with asthma or COPD.|
Who is most vulnerable to smoke?
Certain groups of people face increased health risks from smoke inhalation:
- Children – Their lungs and bodies are still developing, making them more susceptible to harm.
- Older adults – They are more likely to have pre-existing lung and heart conditions aggravated by smoke.
- Pregnant women – Smoke exposure can harm the developing fetus and potentially lead to low birth weight.
- People with asthma, COPD, or heart disease – Their conditions can severely worsen with smoke inhalation.
- Outdoor workers – Those who work outside like construction crews and firefighters have higher exposure.
These sensitive groups should take extra precautions when wildfire smoke is present, ideally avoiding prolonged outdoor exposure if possible. Using an N95 respirator mask certified by NIOSH can also provide protection when outdoors.
Will I have long term effects from brief exposure?
For healthy individuals who experience short-term or mild smoke exposure, such as being 10+ miles away from a wildfire, long term effects are very unlikely. The smoke may temporarily irritate the eyes or throat, but symptoms should improve once exposure stops.
However, repeated exposures over months or years could potentially lead to chronic lung problems. There is also a small increase in lifetime cancer risk from chemicals like PAHs being inhaled during smoke events.
Those with lung conditions like asthma need to be more cautious, as even brief smoke encounters can trigger attacks that permanently damage lung function over time. When wildfires occur, these individuals should limit their exposure.
Overall though, brief smoke exposure from a distant fire is not cause for major long term concern in otherwise healthy people. Any symptoms should resolve once the air clears. More significant long term harm requires longer, repeated smoke encounters.
How to stay safe when you smell smoke
If you notice the smell of smoke in your area, here are some tips to stay safe:
- Check air quality reports and news alerts for information on any nearby fires.
- If air quality is poor, limit time outside and strenuous activity.
- Keep windows closed. Run an air filter indoors if possible.
- Wear an N95 mask certified by NIOSH if you must be outdoors.
- Avoid driving in smoky conditions when you can.
- Do not rely on dust masks or bandanas for protection.
- Reduce other irritants like fragrances, dust and chemicals.
- Watch for worsening of asthma or other lung/heart conditions.
- Contact your doctor if smoke causes severe coughing, wheezing or chest pain.
If smoke levels seem high, don’t hesitate to reduce outdoor exposure until air quality improves. This goes double if you or a family member has a condition like asthma that makes you more vulnerable.
While the smell of smoke from fires can certainly be unpleasant, the health effects for those far away from the fire depends greatly on individual circumstances. For healthy people, irritation and coughing are often the main symptoms. But those with lung conditions, the elderly, pregnant women and small children have higher risks. Monitoring air quality alerts and limiting time outdoors are key to reducing harm when wildfires occur. Brief exposure is not too concerning for most people, but longer encounters or living in smoky conditions can be dangerous. Avoiding smoke inhalation as much as possible is always the safest approach.