Health Impacts of Wildfire Smoke Exposure

Wildfires can be devastating for individuals and communities causing both direct and indirect health impacts, specifically those which can lead to the disruption of essential services such as healthcare, transportation, communication, power, and water supply, among many others.[1]

Morbidity and mortality as a result of wildfire smoke is possible depending on the level of exposure, proximity to the fire itself, whether or not individuals have access to safe shelters, and are given sufficient notice to evacuate the areas in imminent danger.

When individuals are exposed to wildfire smoke, they are in peril to the concoction of air pollutants that make up the smoke, whereby particulate matter (PM) is the most concerning.

Wildfire smoke exposure can lead to short and long-term health impacts that can leave lasting physical and psychological scars on individuals:

  • Physical trauma (i.e. burns) Eye irritation
  • Runny nose
  • Sore throat or general irritation
  • Increased phlegm production
  • Headaches
  • Decreased lung function resulting in excessive coughing and wheezing which can lead to shortness of breath
  • Inflammation of upper and lower respiratory tracts that can contribute to pneumonia, bronchitis, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) exacerbation, among several other lung diseases
  • Exacerbation of cardiovascular diseases such as a heightened risk for stroke and myocardial infarct, all of which can produce various symptoms (i.e. arrhythmias, palpitations, chest pain)
  • Increased emergency room visits and hospitalization
  • Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
  • Exacerbation of mental illnesses
  • Premature death

People with chronic lung/heart disease, pregnant people, infants, young children, and older adults are at higher risk of short and long-term health impacts from wildfire smoke exposure.[2]

Additional effects to consider are how displacement due to property loss will affect individuals in the short and long-term with respect to their ability to cope with these traumatic experiences, especially taking into account whether they have access to adequate social supports. We must therefore approach all care with individuals impacted by wildfire smoke through a Social Determinants of Health (SDoH) lens – one that allows us to understand where inequities are prevalent such that the necessary policies and supports can be implemented.

Multiple vulnerabilities increase the risk of health impacts: The less abled, pregnant, or already infirm; the poor, displaced, and homeless; children and the elderly; athletes; outdoor and manual workers.
Heat and health: Who is affected? by WHO licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Intergovernmental Organization license.

  1. World Health Organization (WHO). (2022). Wildfires. Retrieved from:
  2. BC Centre for Disease Control (BCCDC). (2022). Wildfire smoke. Retrieved from:


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Understanding Wildfires Copyright © 2023 by Raluca Radu is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book