Wildfire Smoke

What’s in smoke from a wildfire? 

Smoke is made up small particles, gases and water vapor. The gases include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, and other substances. 

Is smoke bad for me? 

Smoke inhalation is bad for the general public. Individuals with higher risk include people with heart or lung diseases, such as congestive heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), emphysema or asthma. Children and the elderly also are more susceptible to smoke. 

How does smoke harm my health? 

One of the biggest dangers of smoke comes from particulate matter — solid particles and liquid droplets found in air. In smoke, these particles often are very tiny, smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter. How small is that? Think of this: the diameter of the average human hair is about 30 times bigger. 

These particles can build up in your respiratory system, causing a number of health problems, including burning eyes, runny noses and illnesses such as bronchitis. Healthy adults generally find that their symptoms (runny noses, coughing, etc.) disappear after the smoke is gone. 

The particles also can aggravate heart and lung diseases, such as congestive heart failure, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, emphysema and asthma. 

How do I know if I’m being affected? 

You may have a scratchy throat, cough, irritated sinuses, headaches, runny nose and stinging eyes. Children and people with lung diseases such as asthma, COPD, or chronic bronchitis may find it difficult to breathe as deeply or vigorously as normally, and they may cough, wheeze, or feel short of breath.  

What can I do to protect myself? 

  • Links to daily air quality forecast can be found on Virginia Department of Environmental Quality website. Air quality and forecasts change daily and so do guidelines for protecting yourself. Receiving daily updates is a good way to know the air quality where you live. 
  • Use common sense. If the air looks smoky outside or smells then it’s probably better to limit yourself to indoor activities. 
  • If you are advised to stay indoors, run your air conditioner, if you have one, and make sure to keep the fresh air intake closed and the filter clean. 
  • Indoor particle levels can be reduced further by avoiding using anything that burns, such as wood stoves and candles, and not smoking.  
  • If you have asthma, make sure you have an adequate supply of medication and are using them as prescribed. 

How can I tell when smoke levels are dangerous?

You can check the air quality in your area by visiting AirNow.gov, and find air quality forecasts at the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality website.  If the air is hazy or you can smell smoke, you should check air quality before exercising outside or playing outdoors sports.  

Should I leave my home because of smoke?  

Small smoke particles may get in your home, particularly if smoke levels remain high for an extended period-of-time.  If you are having trouble with air quality inside your home consider going to a public place with air conditioning. There may also be cooling centers or clean air shelters open in your community where you can go to get away from smoky air.  You can dial 2-1-1 to get information about cooling centers in your area.  The EPA has information about how to set up a clean room in your home.   

Do air filters help? 

Indoor air filtration devices with HEPA filters can reduce the levels of particles indoors. Make sure to change your HEPA filter regularly. Don’t use an air cleaner that works by generating ozone 

Do masks help? 

Dust masks and surgical masks provide little protection from smoke particles. N95 respirator are better at filtering out smoke particles. However, neither will protect you from gases and other contaminants found in wildfire smoke. 

How long is the smoke going to last? 

That depends on a number of factors, including the number of fires in the area, fire behavior, weather and the shape of the landscape. Smoke also can travel long distances, so fires in other areas can affect smoke levels in your area. 

What should I do if I’m concerned about my pet’s health? 

Contact your local veterinarian if you have concerns about the impact the smoke may have on your pet. 

Where is the wildfire smoke coming from? 

The Virginia Department of Forestry has a website tracking Virginia wildfires. For wildfires outside of Virginia visit the National Interagency Fire Center. 

Where can I get more information about wildfires and wildfire smoke?   


Updated 2023