Wildfire smoke 'like a giant cigarette' to lungs

A lung specialist breaks down what makes wildfire smoke harmful, and suggests a familiar method to protect yourself while outside. 

Media Contact: Susan Gregg, sghanson@uw.edu, 206-390-3226

Smoke from wildfires is affecting air quality around Washington state.  

UW Medicine lung specialist Dr. Bonnie Ronish says it’s important to take precautions when air quality dips into unhealthy levels.  

“Anyone who has ever smoked a cigarette, or been around a cigarette, can think of it like a giant cigarette,” she said. “Anytime you have anything burned get into your lungs that's bad for you.” 

The tiny particles that make up wildfire smoke are what make it most threatening to our health. These particles, known as PM 2.5, are about 30 times smaller than the diameter of a single human hair. 

“Your airway is intimately designed to take out bigger particles. Your nose hairs take out the bigger particles. The mucus in your airway takes out the bigger particles… but these smaller particles can make it all the way down into the breathing spaces,” Ronish explained. “Higher concentrations of PM 2.5 can really irritate all of our lungs.” 

Signs and symptoms that should signal you to seek cleaner air in a filtered, indoor space: 

  • Irritated nose, eyes or throat 
  • Runny nose 
  • Coughing 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Generally feeling unwell 

Ronish said you might need medical help if you have difficulty completing normal tasks like getting dressed, in addition to experiencing respiratory symptoms. A tight-fitting mask, such as an N95, can provide protection for people who need to be outside. 

Download broadcast-ready soundbites on wildfire smoke safety and symptoms.

Additional resources:

UW Medicine