How to Protect Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

Wildfire smoke in Santa Barbara

George Rose / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke can have detrimental and far-reaching health effects.
  • Some face coverings that are effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 like surgical masks and fabric masks may not trap harmful particles found in wildfire smoke.
  • Portable and HVAC air filters can keep air in your home clean.
  • On days when air quality is particularly poor, experts recommend against doing strenuous activity outdoors.

An unseasonable heat wave and intensified drought in the West Coast have ushered in what appears to be an already extreme wildfire season. With wildfire smoke traveling thousands of miles to New York City, severe air pollution is no longer a regional problem.

Wildfire smoke contains several toxins. One of the most dangerous for human health is PM 2.5, a particulate matter that can be breathed deep into the lungs, causing inflammation and respiratory infections.

Inhaling smoke can cause short-term health problems like wheezing and sore throat. Some studies have linked PM2.5 exposure to issues in the lungs, heart, liver, and even the brain.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the level of pollutants in the air, like particulate matter and toxic gases. When the AQI is at 150 or higher, sensitive groups and the general public may experience adverse health effects when they spend time outdoors, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

Mask Up to Protect Your Lungs

One of the most inexpensive and effective ways to protect your lungs and body from the harmful effects of air pollution is with a properly fitted, high-quality respirator or mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends against using cloth, paper or surgical masks. Although these masks are generally effective for slowing the spread of COVID-19, they might not trap tiny particulate matter.

The gold standard for protective face coverings against air pollution is N95, which can filter out 95% of particles in the air. Alternatively, KN95, a disposable face mask typically manufactured in China, can work just as well.

In addition to N95 masks, there are several reusable and effective high-filtration masks on the market like 3M and Envomask, says Devabhaktuni Srikrishna, founder of Patient Know How, a site where he rates high fit and filtration masks.

No matter which mask you choose, fit is key, he suggests. Look for options with two straps that go around the head, rather than one, to ensure a secure fit over the nose and under the chin.

If there are any gaps between the mask and your face, contaminated air will be able to enter. If you wear glasses, you can test your mask for leakages if your glasses fog up. When wearing a mask with an exhalation valve, cover the valve with a piece of tape, Srikrishna says.

Purifying the Air At Home

To cleanse the air in your home or other building from pollutants, consider purchasing an air filter or purifier. The two most popular styles are portable air purifiers and HVAC filters that can be inserted into a furnace or air-conditioning system.

The EPA says the best options are those with a basic HEPA filter. Those rated as true-HEPA must be able to capture 99.97% of all airborne particles that are 0.3 microns in diameter. Similarly sized smoke particles, which are typically 0.4-0.7 microns, will also be trapped in filters this fine.

“There are a lot of new filter technologies that have come out, but really what you need is the baseline HEPA filtration,” Srikrishna says.

Air purifiers have the benefit of portability, meaning you can place them in rooms where you or the most vulnerable members of the household.

If you have central air and heating, HVAC filters can provide a cheaper alternative to portable air purifiers. These HEPA filters are sold with a range of minimum efficiency reporting values, or MERVs. Srikrishna recommends a MERV 13 or higher to trap even the tiniest smoke particles.

Know When to Stay Inside

At lower levels of air pollution, most people can exercise outdoors without experiencing any health effects. When AQI reaches 100-150, the EPA recommends that people with asthma and heart disease be cautious and keep medications handy. If the index is 150 or higher, it’s safest to reduce or avoid physical activity outdoors.

“In general, if you can smell or see the smoke, that's an indication that you probably ought to back off on your intensity of your exercise,” Ed Avol, MS, professor of clinical population and public health sciences at the University of Southern California, tells Verywell.

If you must be outdoors or are unsure how polluted the air is, wear a well-fitting mask to limit the amount of toxins you take in.

“If you're breathing more, you're taking more air in and your lungs… So you're essentially collecting more of the dirt that's in the air in your body,” Avol says. “Trying to slow down that rate of collection is why we say, even to those that are very healthy, to maybe to back off on those days of smoke and not exercise outdoors.”

Instead, try exercising in an indoors environment with air purification, like a gym or at home. If you’re set on being active outdoors, wear a mask with a tight fit and high-quality filtration that will filter out most particles. And try to avoid strenuous activities on days when the air quality is particularly poor.

If you drive or ride in a car, it’s best to roll up the windows to keep contaminated air out. Avol recommends running the air conditioning unit on “recirculate” to filter the outdoor air before it enters the cabin. However, he suggests driving sparingly on days with poor air quality since it will contribute to ambient pollution.

What This Means For You

If you live in an area that is affected by wildfire smoke pollution, experts recommend investing in high filtration face masks and air filters for your home. While fabric and surgical masks work to slow the spread of COVID-19, they are far less effective at protecting you from inhaling toxic particles from wildfire smoke. Consider a respirator that is rated N95 or better.

8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. United States Environmental Protection Agency. Particulate matter (PM) pollution.

  2. Aguilera R, Corringham T, Gershunov A, Benmarhnia T. Wildfire smoke impacts respiratory health more than fine particles from other sources: observational evidence from Southern CaliforniaNat Commun. 2021;12(1):1493. doi:10.1038/s41467-021-21708-0.

  3. Kim JW, Park S, Lim CW, Lee K, Kim B. The role of air pollutants in initiating liver diseaseToxicol Res. 2014;30(2):65-70. doi:10.5487/TR.2014.30.2.065.

  4. Shi L, Wu X, Danesh Yazdi M, et al. Long-term effects of PM2·5 on neurological disorders in the American Medicare population: a longitudinal cohort studyThe Lancet Planetary Health. 2020;4(12):e557-e565. doi: 10.1016/S2542-5196(20)30227-8.

  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Wildfire Smoke and COVID-19.

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Personal Protective Equipment: Questions and Answers.

  7. Environmental Protection Agency. What is a HEPA filter?

  8. Environmental Protection Agency. Air Quality Guide for Particle Pollution.

By Claire Bugos
Claire Bugos is a health and science reporter and writer and a 2020 National Association of Science Writers travel fellow.