January 9, 2014

Wildfires can can destroy a community, but it’s the smoke that can suck the life out of your lungs.  

But what exactly is smoke? Simply put – it’s a collection of particles suspended in the air as a result of a fire. And smoke from wildfires is a particularly complex assortment, with a greater quantity and variety of particles than smoke from other types of fire. It’s this combination that make wildfire smoke especially toxic to the lungs according to Kent Pinkerton, a researcher at the California National Primate Research Center and a professor of pediatrics and veterinary medicine.

“Particles and gases that are generated from wildfires can create all sorts of conditions and symptoms, such as tightness or pain in the chest, wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing, all of which would be triggered in certain individuals,” said Pinkerton. “We may also see burning and stinging of the nose, eyes and throat, even dizziness or lightheadedness. Typically, we see a rapid recovery from symptoms, but there can be those for whom the symptoms linger for a day or 2.”

Children, in particular, are accurately susceptible to the negative effects of wildfire smoke.

“Children are always active and energetic and they take in large quantities of air with a rapid respiration rate. Because of this, the effects of the smoke can be far greater for children than for adults,” he explained. “Their lungs have a smaller surface area for the particles to interact with. Each of those can affect children to cause wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath that may not be evident in adults who are breathing the same air.”

Household pets can experience the same symptoms, but they also have one natural advantage over humans – a sophisticated filtering system.

“For mammals like cats and dogs, they have a very similar lung structure to humans.  They can also feel those effects just like we do,” Pinkerton said. “They also have the ability to protect themselves— they are more likely to be nose breathers rather than breathing through their mouths, which provides a certain degree of protection through the filtration of particles that are in the air through the nasal cavity. They have a much more complicated structure in the nasal cavity that we do as humans.”

Whether it’s kids or pets, wildfire smoke can be devastating to a respiratory system. But thanks to the continuing work of Pinkerton and his team of researchers, future smoke victims will likely live longer, healthier lives.


Reviewed August 2019

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