Wildfires and Smoke: How to Protect Your Sleep


Throughout the United States, cities are currently facing one of the hottest summers in decades. While concerns about rising temperatures have lingered for years, the summer of 2023 has seen heat records shattered nationwide. This increased heat presents a heightened risk of extensive wildfires, and several states, including California, Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon, have already witnessed the outbreak of wildfires. Importantly, this wildfire season follows a record-breaking season last year throughout the western U.S.

For residents in these areas, wildfires not only jeopardize their homes and possessions but also pose health risks. When the air becomes filled with smoke, so do people’s lungs. These extensive fires can result in alarmingly poor air quality, affecting not only physical health but also potentially disrupting sleep patterns. With no relief in sight from the persistent dry, hot weather— exacerbated by the impacts of climate change, which is making the West hotter and drier—understanding how wildfires can threaten a restful night’s sleep becomes increasingly crucial.

Why Wildfire Smoke Is Dangerous

Wildfires present a substantial risk to respiratory health, primarily due to the diverse range of irritants found in smoke, including particulate matter and hydrocarbons. The most significant danger comes from ultrafine particles inhaled during a fire, leading to nasal congestion and irritation in the eyes. What sets wildfires apart from other types of smoke is the release of numerous airborne chemicals, many of which are toxic. These chemicals can travel vast distances, posing a risk even for individuals not in close proximity to the fire.

The impact of wildfire smoke inhalation on health and sleep varies among individuals, but certain groups are particularly vulnerable, according to the CDC:

  1. People with preexisting heart or lung diseases, especially the elderly.
  2. Children, whose developing airways and higher breathing rates per pound of body weight increase susceptibility.
  3. Pregnant women.

Understanding these risks is crucial, given the potential health implications associated with exposure to wildfire smoke.

How Smoke Affects Your Sleep
How Smoke Affects Your Sleep

How Smoke Affects Your Sleep

The Global Burden of Diseases, Injuries, and Risk Factors Study 2015 pinpointed air pollution as the primary contributor to the global disease burden and the fifth-ranking mortality risk factor. The World Health Organization further attributes 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide to ambient air pollution.

The smoke generated by large wildfires significantly elevates air pollution to hazardous levels. Prolonged exposure to dense air pollution poses a threat to the central nervous system. Airborne particles can infiltrate key areas of the brain associated with quality sleep, such as the frontal cortex and cerebellum. Compromising these brain regions often triggers inflammation, leading to the constriction of airways in the throat and nose.

Beyond the physical health implications, heightened air pollution levels have been linked to increased feelings of depression and anxiety, common contributors to sleep disturbances. For communities in fire-prone regions, the mental toll of wildfires in close proximity can be as significant as the physical impact.

Residents in high-risk areas should be vigilant for symptoms that may indicate exposure to high concentrations of wildfire smoke, such as:

  1. Burning eyes
  2. Wheezing or difficulty breathing
  3. Chest pain
  4. Fatigue

While these symptoms may overlap with other conditions, it is crucial to stay informed if residing in a high-risk area and experiencing such symptoms. Additionally, as wildfire smoke can mimic allergy-like reactions, consulting with a healthcare provider is advisable for a comprehensive understanding of the underlying causes of these symptoms.

Protecting Yourself From Wildfire Smoke

Establishing an optimal bedroom environment is vital for overall sleep quality. However, when faced with the threat of a nearby wildfire, it becomes crucial to understand how external conditions can impact the indoor atmosphere. Implementing several protective measures can safeguard your home from hazardous air pollution:

  1. Keep windows closed and deactivate continuous ventilation systems: Closing windows and turning off ongoing ventilation helps slow down the entry of air pollutants from wildfire smoke into your home. This, in turn, facilitates the removal of pollutants as the indoor air interacts with various surfaces.
  2. Invest in a home filtration system: Whether integrated into a forced air system or as a standalone unit, a home air filter is a valuable investment for enhancing indoor air quality. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers guidance on air cleaning technologies for homes, aiding in the selection of effective filtration systems.
  3. Utilize “fan on” mode for forced air systems: Modern forced air systems often feature a “fan” mode, allowing the system to circulate air through ducts and filters without activating the heating or cooling functions. For older thermostats with a “fan setting” switch offering “auto” and “on” options, select “on.”

As wildfires have become more prevalent and extensive in recent years, an increasing number of people are exposed to elevated levels of smoke. If you reside in an affected area, closely monitor any symptoms, adopt appropriate precautions within your home, and promptly seek medical attention if you experience difficulty breathing.

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  • Milly

    Milly is a mechanical engineer residing in Canada who loves to disassemble and rebuild the latest tech in her spare time. Her passion for understanding how electronics work combined with her engineering expertise allows Milly to provide in-depth,nuts-and-bolts reviews on everything from smartphones to high-end TVs.

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