How Smoke from Fires Can Affect Your Health

Solenco Reporter
 June 13, 2017
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Air Purifiers

Photo Credit: Knysna was crippled by raging veldfires the past week. Photo by IOL Online. 


RESIDENTS of Knysna and the rest of the Garden Route up to Port Elizabeth have experienced devastating veld fires during the past week not only losing their homes, but some losing loved ones as well. However, now in the aftermath, people are still battling with health issues due to the fires – even those who were not close to the flames!

While not everyone has the same sensitivity to wildfire smoke, it’s still a good idea to avoid breathing smoke if you can help it. And when smoke is heavy, such as can occur in close proximity to a veldfire, its bad for everyone!

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic materials burn. The biggest health threat from smoke is from fine particles. These microscopic particles can penetrate deep into your lungs. They can cause a range of health problems, from burning eyes and a runny nose to aggravated chronic heart and lung diseases. Exposure to particle pollution is even linked to premature death.

Some people are more at risk

??It’s especially important for you to avoid the smoke if you are person who suffers from heart of lung disease, such as heart failure, emphysema or asthma or if you’re an older adult, diabetic or pregnant.

Children and teenagers are also at risk and should be kept away from smoke exposure as their respiratory systems are still developing. Children breathe more air (and air pollution) per kilogram of body weight than adults, they are more likely to be active outdoors and they’re more like to have asthma.

How to tell if smoke is affecting you

High concentrations of smoke can trigger a range of symptoms. Anyone may experience burning eyes, a runny nose, cough, phlegm, wheezing and difficulty breathing.

If you have heart of lung disease, smoke may make your symptoms worse. People with heart disease may experience chest pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath or fatigue.

People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and may experience symptoms such as coughing phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Protect yourself!

It’s important to limit your exposure to smoke - especially if you are at increased risk for particle-related effects. Here are some steps you can take to protect your health:

Prepare for fire season if you live in a fire-prone area

If you have heart, vascular or lung disease, including asthma, talk with your doctor before fire season to make plans. Discuss when to leave the area, how much medicine to have on hand, and your asthma action plan if you have asthma.

Have a several-day supply of non-perishable foods that do not require cooking. Cooking - especially frying and broiling - can add to indoor pollution levels.

Consider buying an air purifier. An air purifier can help reduce particle levels indoors, as long as they are the right type and size for your rooms as specified by the manufacturer. If you choose to buy an air purifier, don’t wait until there’s a fire - make that decision beforehand.


Have a supply of dust masks on hand; however, these aren’t enough to protect you! Paper “dust” masks or surgical masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in wildfire smoke. Scarves or bandanas (wet or dry) won’t help, either

During a fire

Pay attention to your air monitor (such as the AirVisual Node Air Monitor). As smoke gets worse, the concentration of particles in the air increases - and so should the steps you take to protect yourself.

Use common sense to guide your activities. Even if you don’t have an air monitor, if it looks or smells smoky outside, it's probably not a good time to mow the lawn or go for a run. And it's probably not a good time for children - especially children with asthma - to be vigorously active outdoors, or active outdoors for prolonged periods of time. If you are active outdoors, pay attention to symptoms. Symptoms are an indication that you need to reduce exposure.

If you are advised to stay indoors, take steps to keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed. In hot weather, seek alternative shelter as staying inside in a hot environment may be dangerous to your health too! Open windows to air out the house when air quality improves.

Help keep particle levels inside lower. When smoke is heavy for a prolonged period of time, fine particles can build up indoors even though you may not be able to see them. Try to avoid using anything that burns, such as wood fireplaces, gas logs, gas stoves - and even candles. Don't vacuum. That stirs up particles already inside your home. And don't smoke. That puts even more pollution in your lungs, and in the lungs of people around you.

If you have asthma or another lung disease, make sure you follow your healthcare provider’s directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma action plan. Have at least a five-day supply of medication on hand. Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms worsen.

If you have cardiovascular disease, follow your healthcare provider’s directions and call if your symptoms worsen. If you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, call the emergency services.

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