Stay Safe from Summer Smoke and Heat

Summer is a great time for being outdoors—usually. But high temperatures can make outside fun uncomfortable, even dangerous. And smoke from wildfires and even campfires can seriously affect the quality of the air we breathe.

We spoke with UNC Health pediatric allergist and immunologist David Peden, MD, MS, to learn what impact smoke and high temperatures can have on our health as we head outside to work and play.

How Heat and Smoke Can Harm Health

Heat, humidity and smoke can make breathing harder, Dr. Peden says. This is especially risky for anyone with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or other lung diseases.

“There’s some concern that children may be at higher risk,” he says. “And people over the age of 65 are at higher risk.”

The more active you are, the harder and faster you breathe, which brings more smoke into your lungs.

But it’s not just your lungs. The rest of the body is under strain when not enough oxygen is present in the bloodstream. “Cardiovascular effects, including heart attacks and strokes, can also happen,” Dr. Peden says.

Humidity can put even more stress on the body than high temperatures alone.

“When it’s humid out, you don’t sweat well,” he says. “Your clothes get wet, but that doesn’t cool your body, so it raises the risk of heat stress.”

How to Stay Safe in the Heat

First some general advice for when it’s hot outside: Everyone needs to make sure they are well hydrated and don’t overdo it with work or play while outdoors, Dr. Peden says. Wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing and a hat to minimize the impact of the sun on your head. Take frequent breaks to slow your breathing and heart rate.

“If you are working outside and feel dizzy, lightheaded or overly hot, stop the activity and go into air-conditioned or shaded space,” he says. “Hydration and common sense regarding heat are important.”

People with chronic conditions, such as heart or lung disease, people 65 and older and children 5 and under should all take special care in extreme heat. Limit time outdoors, especially in the direct sun, and apply sunscreen frequently. Do not leave children, older adults or pets in cars in the heat; even a few minutes can turn deadly.

How to Stay Safe in Poor Air Quality

Everyone can benefit by knowing the air quality where they live. Check the local news or your weather app to learn the temperature, heat index and air quality. For real-time air quality readings, check out from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). You can track air quality with the EPA’s fire and smoke interactive map available online.

If the air is rated “Unhealthy” or “Hazardous,” limit your time outside if possible. “Keep your windows closed, and use air conditioning,” Dr. Peden says. You might choose to invest in a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) purifier. Check the filters on your HVAC air ducts to make sure they are clean and high-efficiency.

If you do go outside, you can borrow some of the tools from the pandemic. Instead now, you want to wear the mask outside, rather than inside.

“If you’re in a high-risk group especially, think about having an N95 mask,” Dr. Peden says. “There’s some data that suggest that other masks could be useful, but what we learned from COVID is that the N95 mask is the most effective at blocking particles the size of smoke if you have to be outside.”

Work with your doctor to make sure any chronic conditions, such as asthma and COPD, are well controlled and you have the medications you need on hand.

Even if you’re the picture of health, you may want to skip outdoor exercise and make sure you drink a lot of water.

“Exercise and strenuous activity increase your respiratory rate,” Dr. Peden says. “That effectively increases the dose of the particles that you inhale. If you’re going to be exercising, you might want to consider doing that in a gym indoors that’s air-conditioned and closed.”

If you are concerned about your health and the summer heat and smoke, talk to your doctor, or find one near you.