What exactly are we inhaling from these wildfires?

What exactly are we inhaling from these wildfires?

Photographs of an orange haze blanketing the boroughs of New York City went viral earlier this summer. Now, similar images are being captured closer to home as Canadian wildfire smoke is rolling through the Midwest and covering up Milwaukee’s sports stadiums and Chicago’s tallest skyscraper.

Illinois and Wisconsin’s air quality indexes (AQI) were among the worst in the world this week. The AQI map shows the states painted in purple, meaning the air quality is at a “very unhealthy” level for children, adults and people with respiratory disease.

The message during this time is simple.

“The best thing to do is stay indoors,” explains Dr. Mary Jo Rolfes-Lo, an allergist in Oak Creek, Wis. “If you need to go outdoors, then wear a mask that filters fine and ultrafine particles.”

Ultrafine particulate matter produced by burning plants is about 0.1 micrometers in diameter and fine particulate matter is roughly 2.5 micrometers in diameter. For perspective, a strand of human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter – more than 30 times larger than fine particulate matter.

“The smaller the particle size, the more likely it is going to enter the lungs and bloodstream,” says Dr. Rolfes-Lo.

According to the American Heart Association, wildfire smoke exposure can cause itchy eyes, a scratchy throat and a cough. Depending on the severity, the exposure may also lead to more serious symptoms, like chest pain and headaches. Dr. Rolfes-Lo says these symptoms are common in the short-term.

Most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from wildfire smoke exposure and will not experience long-term health consequences, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. However, certain at-risk populations may be at greater risk of experiencing chronic symptoms.

Those populations include:

  • People with asthma and other respiratory diseases
  • People with cardiovascular disease
  • Children
  • Pregnant women
  • Adults older than 65 years old
  • Outdoor workers

In addition, the EPA says those with less access to air conditioning may experience greater exposure to wildfire smoke, as air conditioning can help filter particle pollution. If you do not have air conditioning, consider visiting shelters, air-conditioned stores or malls.

As Dr. Rolfes-Lo mentions, the best way to protect yourself from the wildfire smoke is by staying indoors. If you must travel, drive with the windows rolled up and operate the vehicle’s air conditioning in the “recirculate” mode. When outdoors, limit physical activity and wear a fitted N-95 mask.

“If you experience any chest or neurological symptoms, seek help from your provider as soon as possible,” says Dr. Rolfes-Lo.

Are you trying to find an allergist? Look here if you live in Illinois. Look here if you live in Wisconsin. 

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  1. Looking forward to reading newsletter

  2. It’s a test run for 2025.

    • Yes, especially if future lawmakers try to pull us out of the Paris Agreement again and reverse environmental laws. Climate change fallout. It’s our future.

  3. Jacqueline Waldera June 30, 2023 at 7:27 am · Reply

    I’ve heard that there are dangerous levels of formaldehyde in the air we are breathing from the Canadian fires. We all have a minute level of formaldehyde in our homes, which I had not known before. I had only linked formaldehyde with embalming before going in a casket. My eyes were stinging and watering all day at summerfest.

  4. It is funny, these are supposed to be wild fires, but we are smelling plastic and tires burning and nothing that resembles a wood or leave fire. What is in the retardant that the aiplanes dump on the fires. With the amount of stench from tires and plastic, just tells me how bad people are when it comes to cleaning up the campsites..

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About the Author

Danielle Mandella
Danielle Mandella

Danielle Mandella, health enews contributor, is a public affairs coordinator in Greater Milwaukee, Wis.