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Wildfire Smoke, Air Quality, and Health: What You Should Know

Sep 01, 2023 10:21AM ● By Editor

By Andrea Tofte and Grace Grinager, Cook County Public Health Staff - September 1, 2023


This year, more than others, has seen multiple days during which the Environmental Protection Agency has issued an air quality alert due to wildfires. Climate change has led to an increase in the length of wildfire season, the frequency of wildfires, and the total area burned, a trend that is predicted to continue in the coming years. Even when fires are far upwind of Cook County, wildfire smoke can lead to poor air quality locally, which, in turn, can lead to negative health affects for those of us who live, work, and play in the area.

Wildfire smoke contains very small particles that can travel deep into human lungs, irritating the airways and causing symptoms like chest pain, coughing, fatigue and shortness of breath. Other symptoms of poor air quality include burning eyes, sore throat, headaches, and fatigue. If you ever experience severe symptoms like chest pain or trouble breathing, make sure to call 911 and seek emergency care.

Some people experience the negative effects of poor air quality sooner than others, either because they are more sensitive to fine particle pollution or because they are exposed to more of it. Groups of people who are especially sensitive to poor air quality include:

  • People living with asthma or other breathing conditions
  • People living with heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes
  • Pregnant people
  • Children
  • Older adults

Groups of people who are more exposure to poor air quality include:


  • People who work outdoors, especially those who do heavy manual labor
  • People who exercise outdoors
  • People who need to keep their windows open to stay cool in hot weather
  • People who do not have stable housing

Though we can’t control the air quality, there are things that each of us can do to be better prepared for days when there are air quality alerts.

  • Get to know the Air Quality Index. There is a color-coded, standardized system that describes the quality of outdoor air called the air quality index. When the air quality index is unhealthy for sensitive groups (orange), unhealthy for everyone (red), or worse for our area, there will be an air quality alert. 
  • Pay attention to air quality alerts.  When the air reaches an orange (unhealthy for sensitive groups) or red (unhealthy for everyone) level, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issues an Air Quality Alert with specific recommendations to reduce exposure to air pollutants. The County posts these on social media, and they are often read on WTIP as well. You can also sign up for updates on air quality through the Environmental Protection Agency’s website or by downloading the AirNow app on your smartphone.
  • Limit your exposure to air pollutants, particularly on days with poor air quality. This can mean limiting time outdoors, avoiding or limiting strenuous outdoor physical activities, and creating a clear indoor air space where you can spend time indoors. Consider wearing an N-95 mask outdoors if the air quality is causing health symptoms and you must be outdoors.
  • Create a clean air room in your home.  This can be especially helpful during an extended event with poor air quality, as well as if you or a member of your household is sensitive to poor air quality due to age or underlying health conditions.   

To make a clean air room, choose a room that is big enough to fit the number of people who will be spending time there. Close windows and doors to prevent the polluted air from entering the room. If it is hot, run fans or, if you have air conditioning, make sure that it is set to re-circulate mode and is not pulling in outdoor air. Finally, run a portable air cleaner continuously (choose one that does not produce ozone, which can cause health risks). Check the information from the manufacturer to make sure it is the right size for the room. If you have an HVAC system, install a high-efficiency filter, and change it more often than you normally would. Make sure you aren’t polluting the air in your clean air room by smoking, vaping, burning candles or incense, or spraying aerosol products like air fresheners. When the air quality improves, open the windows and change the air intake on your HVAC or air conditioning unit to pull in the outdoor air once again.

Smoke events from wildfires will continue, both this year and in future years. Being prepared for how to protect your health and the health of your loved ones will give you tools to know what to do on days when the air quality if poor.

 If you have questions about air quality alerts or how to address the health risks associated with poor air quality, please contact Cook County Public Health at 218-387-3605.


County Connections is a column on timely topics and service information from your Cook County government. Cook County – Supporting Community Through Quality Public Service.

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