NYC air quality alert: How can wildfire smoke affect your health?

Headaches, burning eyes, and asthma attacks are just some of the health problems that can be caused by exposure to New York City's air quality this week.

When we talk about air quality, we often talk about PM2.5. That’s particulate matter 2.5 microns or smaller – small enough that it can travel deep into the lungs.

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A view of the hazy city during bad air quality as smoke of Canadian wildfires brought in by wind. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

Exposure to PM2.5 from smoke or other air pollution, such as vehicle emissions, can exacerbate health conditions like asthma and reduce lung function in ways that can worsen existing respiratory problems and even heart disease.

"What's in the air is the product of burning forests, basically burning trees and there are very tiny particles that penetrate deeply in the lung and that's why people are getting so sick from it," said Dr. Ian Newmark, chief of pulmonology with Syosset Hospital Northwell Health on Long Island.

Mount Sinai Hospital says it has seen an uptick in the number of people coming into its emergency rooms with health-related issues connected to the smoky air. 

"Yesterday wasn't quite so pronounced, even this morning wasn't that much different than the usual business," Dr. Matthew Bai, an emergency room physician at Mt. Sinai Queens, said Wednesday. "But later this afternoon, as the air quality worsened, we have started to see a little more respiratory complaints like asthma, shortness of breath."

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Thankfully, thus far, Bai said, none of the people who had gone to the hospital had life-threatening problems. 

The FDNY also said Wednesday that it has not seen an increase in the number of people calling 911 for health issues, but that it has seen a major increase in 911 calls from people thinking their building is on fire. 


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Here's how you can protect your health from the smoky haze.


The small particles in wildfire smoke can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, and can affect the heart and lungs, making it harder to breathe. It’s important to limit outdoor activities as much as possible to avoid breathing in these particles, health agencies say. You should especially avoid strenuous activities like going for a run, since heavy breathing will increase the amount of smoke you inhale. And bring pets inside too: Animals are also affected by smoky conditions.


When inside, keep doors, windows and fireplaces shut so that smoke stays out. If you have a portable air purifier or HVAC system, run it to help keep the air clean, the Environmental Protection Agency recommends. Check that your filters are high quality and up to date. Make sure any filters or air conditioners are set to recirculate indoor air to avoid bringing in smoke from outside. If you have a window air conditioner, check that it's sealed to the window as tightly as possible. And try to avoid activities that would add more particles to the air in your home — like smoking, burning candles or frying meat.


If you go outside in smoky conditions, consider wearing a mask, like an N95, to protect your lungs. The mask should fit over your nose and under your chin, and seal tightly to your face to keep out the smoky air.


Some groups should be extra careful as they face higher risks from wildfire smoke. Children and older adults are especially sensitive to smoky conditions. Those with health conditions affecting the lungs or heart — like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease — face higher risks from poor air quality, along with those who are pregnant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People in these groups should take extra precautions and monitor for symptoms like coughing, trouble breathing or fatigue.

Written with material from The Associated Press.