Impact of Wildfire Smoke on Respiratory Health: Research & Interventions

Closeup of burned tree from wildfire with a small sprouts growing on top. Showing that nature and humans can recover from the respiratory and health impacts of wildfire smoke.

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Climate change has been called one of the greatest threats to global public health,1,2 as it impacts not only the physical body but also society as a whole.3 In 2021, more than 200 medical journals issued an unprecedented joint statement that urges world leaders to cut emissions in an effort to avoid catastrophic harm to health. The editorial was published in leading journals, including The Lancet, The New England Journal of Medicine, and the British Medical Journal, among others. One year later, the American Medical Association adopted a new policy declaring climate change a public health crisis.1

As an expression of climate variability, extreme weather events like wildfires have been increasing in frequency, size, and intensity around the world, exacerbated by drought conditions and heat waves.4 Globally, the mortality burden from wildfire smoke is estimated to range between 260,000 and 600,000, with wildfires leading to 339,000 annual premature deaths; however, this is considered an underestimate given increases in extreme wildfire events since the study’s 2012 publication date.5 Between 2017-2020, 72% of countries saw an increase in human exposure to wildfires.5

Several large wildfires with unprecedented scale and duration have occurred in the past few years:

  • In 2018 alone, approximately 55,900 fires burned 8.5 million acres of land throughout the United States. Just four years later, the United States experienced another record of 6,255 fires, which burned a total of 7.5 million acres.6
  • In Australia, the 2019-2020 bushfires named “black summer” endured for three months and spanned 10 million hectares.5
  • In 2021, fires were mapped in 22 of the 27 European Union member states, burning 500,566 hectares (the second worst in the EU territory in terms of burnt area); Italy was the most affected country in terms of burnt area, followed by Turkey, Portugal, and Greece.7
  • In Canada this year, more than 42 million acres of the country was burned due to wildfires. This is comparable to the size of Florida and more acreage than in any of the past 40 years of available data.8

Depending upon the type of fuel burned (i.e., forests, grasslands, peat bogs, or human-made structures), a variety of chemicals are emitted from wildfire smoke, including particulate matter (PM; suspended solid and liquid particles) and gases, including carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and volatile organic compounds.9,10 Adverse respiratory health outcomes are most consistently associated with wildfire smoke exposure and particulate matter with a diameter of 2.5 µm or less (PM2.5).11 What are the short and long-term health impacts of wildfire smoke exposure, and what interventions may mitigate adverse effects, particularly in vulnerable populations like children?

Human Health Effects: A Focus on Respiratory Conditions

A 2023 systematic review of 36 studies by Gao et al suggests that the long-term impacts of nonoccupational wildfire exposure is associated with mortality, morbidity (mainly respiratory diseases), shorter height of children, reduced lung function, poorer general health status, and mental health disorders like PTSD.5 Epidemiological studies with human population exposure to wildfires were included without any restrictions on age and sex. Studies included in the systematic review, the majority of which focused on health impacts one or two years after wildfire exposure, predominately originated from developed countries. Regarding respiratory function, the systematic review found the following:5

  • Five studies assessed the long-term impact of wildfire exposure on lung function, with two studies reporting a decrease in lung function (forced expiratory volume in 1 s(FEV1)/forced vital capacity (FVC) ratio) after wildfire exposure.5
  • One US study observed a 2.2 L per minute decrease in respiratory peak flow among allergy clinic patients one year post-fire exposure. The lung function was more affected in men than in women, and the general health status was poorer in the older population (>41 years) than in the younger population ( ?41 years).5

Another interesting 2023 systematic review by Barros et al focuses on the short-term health impacts of wildfire emissions by geographical area.12 It suggests that the US has reached higher PM2.5 concentrations than other countries—almost 19-fold higher than the recommended air quality guidelines. Regarding the meta-analysis of respiratory outcomes, the estimated odds ratio showed an overall increased probability of 3% for hospital admission or emergency department/room visits for all respiratory outcomes (all ages) per 10 µg/m3 rise in PM2.5 during wildfire events. For the elderly, there was a 7% elevation in asthma-related hospital admission. It is important to note the heterogeneity among these studies; further research is warranted.12

While epidemiologic evidence continues to connect exposure to PM2.5 air pollution with respiratory diseases and mortality, experimental evidence suggests this outcome is linked to oxidative effects on cellular function and inflammation.13 The evidence for an association between wildfire smoke and respiratory diseases is clearest for acute effects on asthma. Epidemiologic and experimental evidence suggests that wildfire smoke exposure increases allergic predisposition and upper airway or sinonasal disease; most of this research is focused more generally, however, on fine particulate matter PM2.5 (which can include traffic, industry, and biomass burning) and is not specific to wildfire smoke. Wildfire smoke is technically considered a specific subtype of PM2.5. Mechanisms of action, not reflected to date in human data, include the disruption of epithelial integrity and downstream effects on inflammatory or immune pathways.13

Population-based evidence for an association between wildfire smoke and respiratory diseases is clearest for acute effects on asthma.13,14 While different methods were used to estimate exposure, most involved combining data from ground-level, fixed monitoring sites for PM2.5 with meteorological data and satellite-based imaging or physicochemical data; periods of active wildfire smoke exposure were typically compared with non-exposure periods for the same population. Nearly all studies (many conducted in western North America) showed a statistically significant, exposure dose–related increase in risk for diagnosis or exacerbation of asthma after exposure to wildfire smoke.13,14

A 2022 population-based observational cohort study in The Lancet of more than two million Canadian adults found that wildfire exposure was associated with slightly increased incidence of lung cancer and brain tumors.15 Cohort members exposed to a wildfire within 50 km of residential locations in the past 10 years had a 4.9% relatively higher incidence (adjusted hazard ratio (HR) 1.049, 95% CI 1.028-1.071) of lung cancer than unexposed populations and a 10% relatively higher incidence (adjusted HR 1.100, 1.026-1.179) of brain tumors.15

Children are at an increased risk of respiratory effects from wildfire smoke due to smaller airways, a higher metabolic rate, and continued lung development.15 A 2021 systematic review of 16 observational studies in urban or mixed urban and rural settings suggests that there may be a significant increase in respiratory emergency department visits and asthma hospitalizations within the first three days of a child’s exposure to wildfire smoke, particularly in those younger than five years old. Eye itchiness, nasal congestion, rhinitis, and sore throat were positively associated with wildfire smoke exposure with a low grade of certainty.15

A 2020 prospective cohort study on the chronic effects of wildfires on lung function suggests that infants aged <2 years exposed to a six-week coal mine fire had lower lung reactance as measured by forced oscillation technique three years after the fire in association with their level of PM2.5 exposure during the fire.10,16 Children with chronic diseases are especially vulnerable to the effects of wildfire exposures, which may affect both airway and systemic inflammation.18 In children with asthma, PM2.5 from wildfires may be more likely to trigger an asthmatic exacerbation per unit mass than PM2.5 from other sources, suggesting a possible enhanced inflammatory effect of the wildfire smoke mixture on asthmatic airways.10

Interventions: Functional Medicine Considerations

Given the increased risk of adverse effects from wildfire smoke, it is important to consider ways to minimize exposure. As with many pollutants, the toxicant concentration and length of exposure time may indicate the extent of impact and inform any treatment considerations. Patients can follow the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow website and Air Quality Index, or similar indices in other countries, for current and predicted ambient air quality effects of wildfires.19 The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) advises individuals to stay indoors with windows and doors closed and limit physical activity to decrease inhaled doses of pollutants on smokey days.19 Masks and indoor filtration devices may also be used.19

Following a Southern California wildfire in 2003, children who reported wearing masks, using air conditioning, or restricting outdoor time had fewer symptoms.20 Overall, existing literature suggests that the use of surgical masks and respirators are safe in children and adults, with surgical masks providing a roughly 20% decrease in exposure to wildfire smoke and non-fit tested N95 respirators decreasing exposure by roughly 80% for children and adults.20

Another intervention for managing air quality indoors is the use of filtration devices.20 A study on the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation in California found that in a real-life setting where multiple interventions were possible (mask wearing, portable air filter use, evacuation to a cleaner area), only the use of a portable high efficiency particulate arresting (HEPA) air filter was associated with decreased symptoms.20 A randomized controlled trial in urban American schools found that classrooms including a set of four portable HEPA filters had significantly lower PM2.5 and black carbon levels, even though baseline levels before filtration were already low.20,21 A handout on HEPA purifiers is also available to download for IFM members, within the IFM Toolkit. Public information on indoor air filtration options and efficiency can be found on the EPA’s Indoor Air Filtration Factsheet.

Understanding toxicity, taking practical steps to avoid exposures, and utilizing masks or HEPA filters are essential pieces to improving a patient’s health in the event of wildfire smoke exposure. Other personalized treatments may include lifestyle modifications as well as nutritional support to enhance toxicant elimination, such as IFM’s Detox Food Plan.  Learn more about the health impact of pollutant exposures and treatment strategies at IFM’s Environmental Health Advanced Practice Module (APM).


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  1. American Medical Association. AMA adopts new policy declaring climate change a public health crisis. Published June 13, 2022. Accessed September 19, 2023.
  2. Atwoli L, Baqui AH, Benfield T, et al. Call for emergency action to limit global temperature increases, restore biodiversity, and protect health. Glob Health Action. 2021;14(1):1965745. doi:1080/16549716.2021.1965745
  3. World Health Organization. Climate change and health. Published October 30, 2021. Accessed September 28, 2023.
  4. Kozlov M. How record wildfires are harming human health. Nature. 2021;599(7886):550-552. doi:1038/d41586-021-03496-1
  5. Gao Y, Huang W, Yu P, et al. Long-term impacts of non-occupational wildfire exposure on human health: a systematic review. Environ Pollut. 2023;320:121041. doi:1016/j.envpol.2023.121041
  6. NOAA National Centers for Environmental Information. Monthly wildfires report for 2022. Published January 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.
  7. European Commission. European forest fire report: three of the worst fire seasons on record took place in the last six years. Published October 31, 2022. Accessed September 19, 2023.
  8. Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre Inc. Fire statistics. Published 2023. Accessed September 19, 2023.
  9. Ebi KL, Vanos J, Baldwin JW, et al. Extreme weather and climate change: population health and health system implications. Annu Rev Public Health. 2021;42:293-315. doi:1146/annurev-publhealth-012420-105026
  10. Garcia E, Rice MB, Gold DR. Air pollution and lung function in children. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2021;148(1):1-14. doi:1016/j.jaci.2021.05.006
  11. Covert HH, Abdoel Wahid F, Wenzel SE, Lichtveld MY. Climate change impacts on respiratory health: exposure, vulnerability, and risk. Physiol Rev. 2023;103(4):2507-2522. doi:1152/physrev.00043.2022
  12. Barros B, Oliveira M, Morais S. Continent-based systematic review of the short-term health impacts of wildfire emissions. J Toxicol Environ Health B Crit Rev. 2023;26(7):387-415. doi:1080/10937404.2023.2236548
  13. Noah TL, Worden CP, Rebuli ME, Jaspers I. The effects of wildfire smoke on asthma and allergy. Curr Allergy Asthma Rep. 2023;23(7):375-387. doi:1007/s11882-023-01090-1
  14. Reid CE, Maestas MM. Wildfire smoke exposure under climate change: impact on respiratory health of affected communities. Curr Opin Pulm Med. 2019;25(2):179-187. doi:1097/mcp.0000000000000552
  15. Korsiak J, Pinault L, Christidis T, Burnett RT, Abrahamowicz M, Weichenthal S. Long-term exposure to wildfires and cancer incidence in Canada: a population-based observational cohort study. Lancet Planet Health. 2022;6(5):e400-e409. doi:1016/s2542-5196(22)00067-5
  16. Henry S, Ospina MB, Dennett L, Hicks A. Assessing the risk of respiratory-related healthcare visits associated with wildfire smoke exposure in children 0-18 years old: a systematic review. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021;18(16):8799. doi:3390/ijerph18168799
  17. Shao J, Zosky GR, Hall GL, et al. Early life exposure to coal mine fire smoke emissions and altered lung function in young children. 2020;25(2):198-205. doi:10.1111/resp.13617
  18. Pacheco SE, Guidos-Fogelbach G, Annesi-Maesano I, et al. Climate change and global issues in allergy and immunology. J Allergy Clin Immunol. 2021;148(6):1366-1377. doi:1016/j.jaci.2021.10.011
  19. Laumbach RJ. Clearing the air on personal interventions to reduce exposure to wildfire smoke. Ann Am Thorac Soc. 2019;16(7):815-818. doi:1513/annalsats.201812-894ps
  20. Holm SM, Miller MD, Balmes JR. Health effects of wildfire smoke in children and public health tools: a narrative review. J Expo Sci Environ Epidemiol. 2021;31(1):1-20. doi:1038/s41370-020-00267-4
  21. Jhun I, Gaffin JM, Coull BA, et al. School environmental intervention to reduce particulate pollutant exposures for children with asthma. J Allergy Clin Immunol Pr. 2017;5(1):154-159.e3. doi:1016/j.jaip.2016.07.018


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