How to Protect Kids From Wildfire Smoke
On This Page
Every year, nearly 65,000 wildfires break out across the U.S., affecting an estimated 7.4 million children in America. And new data shows that forest fires are becoming even more widespread, burning almost twice as much tree cover today as they did 20 years ago. With that, more families are faced with the immediate and long-term fallout, including exposure to dangerous wildfire smoke. That’s why pediatrics experts note that wildfire smoke is a “growing threat to vulnerable children.” Here’s what you need to know to help keep your children safe from wildfire smoke.
What makes wildfire smoke so dangerous for children?
The smoke from wildfires contains teeny particles from the plants, trees, vehicles, homes, buildings, and everything else they burn. This adds up to a whole lot of unsavory and unhealthy material floating in the air, waiting to be inhaled. In fact, it’s thought that wildfire smoke might be 10 times as toxic as air pollution from burning fossil fuels! Short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can trigger coughing and asthma attacks in children. Repeated exposure to this dangerous smoke may even reduce a child’s lung function.
Here’s why wildfire smoke is especially dangerous for kids:
Microscopic particles: Wildfire smoke consists of what’s called particulate matter, which is a microscopic mix of solid and liquid droplets, containing hundreds of different chemicals that can travel deep into the lungs and bloodstream.
Vulnerable lungs: Children’s lungs are still developing, which means poor air quality can have a long-term impact on their growth. Children’s airways are small, so it doesn’t take much wildfire-induced inflammation to cause damage.
Subpar filtration: It’s thought that children’s noses are unable to filter dangerous particles in wildfires as effectively as grownups’ noses, which allows more particles can get into their lungs.
Increased air intake: Children breathe faster than adults, they take in more air for their body size than adults, and they tend to be more active outdoors—all of which leads to more exposure to dangerous wildfire smoke.
Is wildfire smoke dangerous to babies and toddlers?
Yes! Wildfires particles are roughly 10 times more harmful on children’s respiratory health than particles from other sources—and this is especially true for children aged 0 to 5 years old, according to a 2021 study in the journal Pediatrics. Plus, earlier studies found there was a 70% increase in ER visits for respiratory issues during wildfire season for children aged 0 to 4.
Researchers note that even limited exposure to wildfire smoke could lead to chronic health issues.
How can wildfire smoke affect children?
Even short-term exposure to wildfire smoke can cause irritation and swelling in a child’s airways, which can impact their breathing and cause other distressing respiratory symptoms, like coughing and asthma attacks.
Here are some common signs and symptoms of wildfire smoke inhalation in children:
Bobbing head (Babies might do this to help keep airways open.)
Burning or stinging of the nose, throat, and eyes
Chest tightness or pain
Exacerbating asthma symptoms
Fast or labored breathing
Grunting (Babies might do this to help keep airways open.)
Flaring asthma symptoms
Pallor of skin (pale)
Retraction (when a baby pulls their chest in at the ribs)
Using rescue meds more than about every four hours (for kids with asthma)
In addition, repeated and/or early exposure to wildfire smoke can negatively affect a child’s heart, lung, and immune system health over their lifetime, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).
Is wildfire smoke harmful when pregnant?
Yes! During pregnancy, you naturally breathe more air in and out (aka increased respiration) and have a reduced lung capacity, which makes you especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of wildfire smoke. Research has shown that exposure to heavy metals and industrial solvents found in wildfire smoke can be harmful to fetal development and put you at an elevated risk of low birth weight and preterm birth. For example, over a five-year span in California, as many as 7,000 preterm births were likely linked to wildfire smoke exposure, according to a 2022 report in the journal Environmental Research. The study went on to note that as little as one day of wildfire smoke exposure in pregnancy may raise the risk of preterm birth.
Protecting Children from Wildfire Smoke
If you live in an area where there’s a history of wildfires, then your family needs a disaster plan that includes having a wildfire disaster kit at the ready at all times. (Here’s some info on how to prep your kit.) Of course, if a wildfire is burning near you, evacuate as soon as authorities recommend you do so.
In the meantime, here are some ways to help keep your child safe from wildfire smoke:
Stay inside. When the outdoor air is dangerous, stay in as much as possible.
Filter your air. If possible, clean your indoor air with a portable air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. (Make sure your purifier doesn’t produce ozone.) Another option: If you have central air, make sure you’re using a filter rated MERV13 or higher. (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, or MERVs, illustrates an air filter’s ability to capture particles.)
Use fans. If a wildfire occurs during a heat wave, keep those windows closed and use fans or air conditioning on “recirculate air” setting to cool off. If neither are an option, find a local cooling center by dialing 2-1-1.
Don’t do these activities. Avoid cooking on the stove, vacuuming, smoking, vaping, burning candles, spraying aerosol products, all of which can worsen your indoor air.
Dust. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wiping up dust with a damp cloth can help keep particles out of the air.
Wear the right mask. If you need to venture out, know that cloth masks are ineffective when it comes to protecting children from wildfire smoke. However, well-fitted medical masks—or N95 respirators—can help protect children over the age of 2, according to the AAP.
Turn on this car feature. If you are driving to a safe location, keep windows closed and use the “recirculate air” setting in your car.
Keep an eye on the Air Quality Index (AQI). When the AQI is greater than 150, kids need to remain indoors whenever possible.
Wash clothes. If you’ve been outdoors, change into something clean when you get home. That’s because smoky air particles can cling to clothing.
When to Call the Doctor About Wildfire Smoke Exposure
If you’re worried about wildfire smoke exposure, don’t hesitate to call your child’s doctor at any time! But make sure you reach out to a healthcare professional if your child…
Has trouble breathing
Is very sleepy
Won’t eat or drink
Experiences shortness of breath
Has a persistent cough
Experiences other symptoms that don’t go away
More Safety Tips:
- How to Prepare your Family for an Emergency
- Keeping Little Ones Safe During a Heat Wave
- The Happiest Baby Safety Guide
- Keep Your Family Safe With These Fire Safety Tips
- National Interagency Fire Center: NIFC celebrates second annual National Wildland Firefighter Day
- Community Vulnerability to Health Impacts of Wildland Fire Smoke Exposure. Environmental Science & Technology. May 2017
- Global Forest Watch: Interactive World Forest Map
- American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), AAP Voices Blog: Wildfire Smoke a Growing Threat to Vulnerable Children
- National Public Radio (NPR): Wildfire smoke can be especially dangerous for kids. Here's how to protect them
- United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA): Why Wildfire Smoke is a Health Concern
- Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health: Wildfires and Health
- Children’s Hospital of Colorado: Wildfire Smoke and Kids: Health Effects
- Fine Particles in Wildfire Smoke and Pediatric Respiratory Health in California. Pediatrics. April 2021
- Increase in Pediatric Respiratory Visits Associated with Santa Ana Wind–Driven Wildfire Smoke and PM2.5 Levels in San Diego County. Annals of the American Thoracic Society. December 2019
- Kaiser Permanente: Smoke Inhalation in Children: Care Instructions
- AAP: Wildfires: What Parents Need to Know
- Cedars-Sinai: How Does Wildfire Smoke Affect Your Health?
- AAP: Climate Change & Wildfires: Why Kids Are Most at Risk
- Stanford Medicine Children’s Hospital: The Lungs in Pregnancy
- Wildfire Smoke Exposure during Pregnancy: A Review of Potential Mechanisms of Placental Toxicity, Impact on Obstetric Outcomes, and Strategies to Reduce Exposure. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. November 2022.
- Associations between wildfire smoke exposure during pregnancy and risk of preterm birth in California. Environmental Research. August 2021
- EPA: What is a MERV rating?
- EPA: Wildfire Smoke and Indoor Air Quality: How to Create a Clean Room at Home
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Wildfire Smoke and Children
Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.
Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.