NEWS | September 9, 2020

Protecting yourself from smoky air

Poor air quality due to fires means extra health precautions are necessary


As the Sacramento region experiences poor air quality from Northern California wildfires, UC Davis Health pulmonary experts want everyone to know how to protect their health. 

Health concerns grow as the AQI rises. Health concerns grow as the AQI rises.

"The most important thing to do is regularly check the AQI,” said Nicholas Kenyon, chief of pulmonary, critical care and sleep medicine at UC Davis Health.

The air-quality index (AQI) is reported each day on the Sacramento Metropolitan Air Quality Management District website:

"It is an estimate of the level of airborne particles caused by wildfires," Kenyon said. "The key numbers to look out for are 101 and 151.”

101 is the point at which children, the elderly and those with chronic health conditions need to take extra precautions to protect their health. At 151, everyone needs to take extra precautions. During the current wildfires, the AQI has at times been close to 200.

Symptoms related to smoky air

Smoky air can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, even with short-term exposure, according to Kenyon. It also can increase shortness-of-breath, especially in those with chronic lung diseases like asthma and COPD.

Drink plenty of water to relieve throat irritation. Those with lung conditions should closely monitor their symptoms. Call your doctor if shortness of breath increases. If symptoms worsen and don't respond to medication, don't delay getting to an urgent care center or emergency department.

Smoky air can cause some, but not all, symptoms of COVID-19. If you have shortness-of-breath plus a fever, chills, body aches and/or a loss of your sense of taste or smell, call your physician about getting tested for COVID-19.

Cleaning up after a wildfire also poses health risks. Review guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention before embarking on a cleanup plan.

What to do when the AQI affects you

  • Stay inside
  • Recirculate the air in your home's central heating/cooling system (shut off the fresh-air intake) and make sure the filter has been recently changed
  • Close all windows and doors
  • If you exercise, only do so indoors
  • If you must go outside, wear an N95 or P100 mask and make sure it fits very close to the face for best filtration

Please note that the masks worn to protect yourself from COVID-19 — or the droplets produced when someone coughs or sneezes — are not enough to protect yourself from pollutants caused by fire. Instead, look for a mask like those in the photo.

Also, for purposes of COVID-19 protection, N95 masks with valves protect wearers but not those around them. To prevent the spread of the virus, a surgical mask can be worn over N95s with vents.

Related resources and stories

Higher temps, reduced air quality and COVID-19 are a triple threat for those with lung disease
Burn center team braces for wildfire season
Toxic legacy: The 2017 California wildfires