Smoke From a Wildfire: Can This Trigger Allergies?

Fire smoke is a serious health concern and although it’s not technically classified as an allergen, it can invade our respiratory system just like pollen. But can fire smoke actually cause an allergic reaction? Perhaps. Smoke inhalation and allergic reactions share very similar symptoms, including nose, throat, and eye irritation, shortness of breath, coughing, headaches, and more. Lets explore smoke allergy a bit further.

What Types Of Pollutants Are in Wildfire Smoke?

Smoke from fire, whether manmade or naturally occurring, typically consists of gaseous components and Particulate Matter air pollution.

Particulate Matter

The fire’s temperature and burning material, or “fuel”, determine the size of particulate matter particles present in the resulting wildfire smoke. Smaller PM particles stay airborne longer and as such can disperse over larger areas. PM2.5, particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller, is especially harmful as it can penetrate deeper into our lungs, causing inflammation and other adverse health reactions.

Gaseous Pollutants

The gasses in wildfire smoke vary according to the burning material, its moisture level and the oxygen availability. The most common chemical components of wood smoke are volatile organic compounds (VOCs), nitrogen oxides (NOx), carbon monoxide (CO), and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs). Wildfires that burn man-made structures can also add additional chemicals to the wildfire smoke composition, creating a unique chemical signature.

Can Smoke Pollutants Trigger Allergies?

When PM2.5 and smaller smoke particles enter our airways, they cause oxidative stress, damage our cells and induce an inflammatory response. According to the EPA, the dangers of wildfire smoke inhalation increases for more at-risk populations such as children, pregnant women, the elderly, or people suffering from chronic health conditions such as asthma, COPD, heart disease, and allergies.

Extreme health reactions have led some asthma and allergy sufferers to wonder if we could be ‘allergic’ to smoke.

“People with allergies and asthma often have chronically inflamed airways, which makes them very sensitive to irritants like smoke,” says Dr. Suzanne Cassel, an allergist-immunologist researcher at Cedar Sinai. “They may experience worsening of their allergic symptoms or develop an asthma attack even to low levels of environmental smoke.”

Fire smoke may induce asthma attacks, and since an estimated 60% of asthma sufferers have what’s called ‘allergic asthma’ the question of whether wildfire smoke can trigger allergic reactions is an important one.

The general consensus for now seems to be that wildfire smoke isn’t a proven ‘allergen’ – but that It does trigger the immune system in a similar way to how the body reacts to viruses and allergenic particles like pollen.

Fire Smoke Allergy-like Symptoms To Be Aware Of

The immediate effects of wildfire smoke exposure often consist of stinging eyes, irritation of the nose and throat, coughing spurts, shortness of breath, and an increase in phlegm.

These symptoms can manifest even in healthy adults without known sensitivities. Among firefighters, who face smoke exposure more than the average person, researchers have found that repeated exposure to forest fire smoke may lead to sensitization and increased allergy and asthma incidence after prolonged exposure.

Additional studies have found that:

  • A 10 μg m−3 increase in wildfire-specific PM2.5 exposure led to up to a 10% increase in respiratory hospitalizations, whereas non-wildfire PM2.5 led to an increase of 0.76% by comparison.
  • For children aged 19 or younger, UCSD and Johns Hopkins University researchers found that wildfire smoke pollution increased emergency room visits by 30%, based on six years of data from San Diego County care facilities.

People with particular sensitivities to smoke, such as asthmatics, allergy sufferers, and people living with chronic respiratory conditions or heart disease may experience more severe reactions from wildfire smoke exposure and require longer recovery periods.

Should Indoor Air Products & Health Providers Consider Wildfire Smoke ‘Allergies’?

As wildfire frequency and their unpredictability increases, smoke pollution is becoming more of a health hazard. There is now a rising demand from individuals looking to protect their health from toxic wildfire-linked pollution, creating new opportunities and challenges for a range of businesses. Below are just some recommendations for consumer brands looking to address this need head-on:

1. Provide Accurate AQI Readings to Track & Monitor Smoke Pollution

Empower consumers with smoke sensitivity symptoms by leveraging real-time air quality and live wildfire alerts that keep people informed of the dynamic risks as they worsen or improve.

2. Recommend Limiting Exposure & Exercise Outdoors

Simply translating raw air pollution data isn’t enough. It is essential to communicate the level of risk to people who may be triggered by smoke from fires with health-focused insights, tailored to their location and needs.

3. If It’s Bad, Recommend Evacuation

Help save lives and prevent worsened health reactions to fire smoke by warning users before wildfire pollution levels reach extreme levels, or before the fire itself moves closer to their location.

4. Recommend Wearing a Face Mask 

The N95 mask has been found to offer the highest degree of air pollution protection among commercially available masks. By recommending sensitive groups wear face protection at the right time, businesses can empower individuals to become proactive in protecting their health. 

5. Reach Smoke Sensitive People at the Right Time in the Right Place

Service providers can utilize real-time and historical wildfire and air quality data to inform demand planning and enhance their operations.

Accurate Wildfire & Pollution Tracking for Managing Smoke Allergies

BreezoMeter’s wildfire intelligence enables businesses across different industries to adapt to the changing climate in their markets: By leveraging live wildfire tracking and actionable insights in the right place at the right time, companies can demonstrate their commitment to their customer’s health and differentiate their digital, product and health experiences.

Learn more about our Wildfire Tracker+ features here.

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Yam Meirovitz

Business Development Manager @BreezoMeter. I specialize in helping businesses get the most from wildfire tracking intelligence. Contact me at yamm@breezometer.com to get in touch.