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Protecting Your Family From Wildfire Smoke Air Pollution

Wildfires create large amounts of smoke that pollute the air. When this happens, the air quality is poor and can cause breathing problems for anyone — especially kids with respiratory illnesses like asthma

With wildfires becoming more common due to changes in the environment, it’s important to have a plan for your family whenever wildfires break out or the air quality is poor in your area. These tips can help everyone breathe easy.

How Will I Know if Wildfire Smoke Is in the Air?

Smoke that comes from wildfires is a type of air pollution called particle pollution. It's created when tiny bits of dust, dirt, smoke, soot, and other stuff hang in the air. 

You can get daily information from weather reports (online or in the newspaper) or by visiting the Environmental Protection Agency at www.airnow.gov. The EPA's Air Quality Index (AQI) report measures the levels of pollutants in the air, including particle pollutants like smoke.

What Happens if Kids Breathe Air With Wildfire Smoke Air Pollution?

When first exposed to smoke or particle pollution, some kids may feel a stinging feeling in the eyes, nose, or throat. The smaller the particles, the deeper they can get into the lungs. This makes them more likely to cause breathing problems, especially for kids who have asthma or another respiratory illness.

Over time, kids may begin to have:

  • trouble breathing
  • a tight chest
  • a whistling sound while breathing, called wheezing
  • a cough

How Can I Help My Child?

On days when air quality is poor:

Stay indoors as much as possible. Keep all windows and doors closed to prevent smoke from entering your home. Plan any outdoor activities for early in the day — when air quality tends to be better. If your child is in a sport that practices outside, talk to the coach about other arrangements, such as working out in an air-conditioned gym. 

Use air conditioning. If you have an air conditioning system, set it to recirculate mode. This helps to filter and cool the indoor air without drawing in smoke from outside.

Limit exposure to indoor pollutants. If possible, use an air purifier, vent all gas appliances to the outside, and avoid burning any wood fires in your house.

If you must spend time in a car, close the windows and vents and run the air conditioning instead. It might be tempting to put a mask on your child when outside. Cloth masks are not effective. Specific types of masks can help (such as N95 masks that doctors wear), but these need to fit very well. Ask your doctor if this might be an option for your child.

What if My Child Has Trouble Breathing?

Kids with asthma should follow their asthma action plan if they have trouble breathing. If symptoms don’t go away after 15–20 minutes of using quick-relief medicines (also called rescue or fast-acting medicines), go to the ER or call an ambulance. 

Anyone should see a doctor right away if they have:

  • constant wheezing
  • a lasting cough that doesn’t go away
  • changes in skin color, like bluish or gray lips and fingernails
  • trouble talking and can't speak in full sentences
  • the areas below the ribs, between the ribs, and in the neck visibly pull in during inhalation (called retractions)

What Else Should I Know About Air Pollution?

You can't single-handedly solve air pollution, but you can take these important steps to help improve it when the air quality is poor:

  • Don't drive — share a ride, take public transportation, ride a bike, or walk.
  • Don't put gas in your car until after 7 p.m.
  • Avoid using outboard motors, off-road vehicles, or other gasoline-powered recreational vehicles.
  • Avoid mowing your lawn or using other gasoline-powered gardening equipment until the late evening or until the air quality improves.
  • Don't use paints, solvents, or varnishes that produce fumes.
  • If you're barbecuing, use an electric starter instead of charcoal lighter fluid.

Reviewed by: Abigail Strang, MD
Date Reviewed: Jun 9, 2023

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