Wildfire Respiratory Protection and Preventing Breathing Problems

The California wildfires are on just about everyone's mind. If you practice near the affected areas or in another location prone to wildfires, take into consideration these wildfire respiratory protection instructions.

The California wildfires are on just about everyone’s mind. Chances are, some of your patients have brought it up in conversation. If you practice near the affected areas, they may have asked how it will affect their respiratory health.

To date, the Camp Fire north of Sacramento has claimed at least 63 lives and destroyed thousands of structures, making it the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Meanwhile, the Woolsey Fire in Southern California has caused at least 3 fatalities and leveled hundreds of structures.1

The people and communities directly in the path of these wildfires aren’t the only ones in peril. Strong winds have blown plumes of thick smoke around the region, exposing some of the state’s most sensitive populations – people with pre-existing lung or heart conditions, people with diabetes, young children, and the elderly – to danger.2

Air quality levels have plummeted in many California cities. The Environmental Protection Agency Air Quality Index assigns 6 levels of health concern: good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy, very unhealthy, and hazardous. Dozens of locations are currently rated unhealthy for sensitive groups or worse.3

If you practice anywhere near the affected areas or in another location susceptible to wildfires, be sure to take into consideration these wildfire respiratory protection instructions from the American Lung Association and ask yourself the following questions4:

When treating patients who have lung disease, chronic heart disease, or diabetes, ask yourself…

  • Are any changes in medication necessary to help the patient combat the smoky conditions? Patients with asthma or other lung conditions may need medication adjustments.
  • Is the patient having difficulty relieving symptoms through normal means? Symptoms include wheezing, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, dizziness, chest heaviness, and difficulty breathing in deeply.
  • Is the patient coughing persistently or experiencing pain while breathing? Keep in mind that symptoms may not appear immediately.
  • Does the patient need to adjust his or her oxygen levels?

Here are some general health tips for patients:

  • Stay indoors if you live in or near the affected areas.
  • Prepare to evacuate and stay tuned for instructions from state and local officials.
  • Don’t rely on a dust mask. Ordinary dust masks – those designed to filter out large particles – are ineffective at stopping smaller particles. Special dust masks with N-95 or N-100 filters will provide protection from smaller particles but should only be worn if instructed by a physician.
  • Take extra precautions for children. Their lungs are still developing, and they are more susceptible to smoke.
  • Keep the windows and vents in your car closed when you are driving.
  • Set air conditioning systems to the recirculation setting to prevent outside air from being pulled in.


  1. Death toll rises in California’s Camp Fire as number of unaccounted for leaps – live updates. CBS News. November 16, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018.
  2. Guarino B, Stone Z, Morrar S. California’s deadliest wildfire is also a massive air-quality problem. The Washington Post. November 14, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018.
  3. Current air quality index (AQI) conditions – California cities. Environmental Protection Agency. Accessed November 16, 2018.
  4. Wildfires. American Lung Association. Updated November 15, 2018. Accessed November 16, 2018.