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Student Health Services

Smoke Alert

Health advisory: smoke from regional fires

October 12, 2017

Heavy smoke from wildfires in the North Bay counties continues to cause unhealthy air quality throughout the region and the smoke is moving into other parts of the Bay Area due to winds. Smoke impacts can be seen throughout the Bay Area and levels of fine particulate pollution may exceed national health standards for several days.

Persons impacted by wildfire smoke are advised to:

  • Limit outdoor activities to avoid unnecessary exposure if you smell smoke.  
  • Set air conditioning units and car vent systems to re-circulate to prevent outside air from moving inside.
  • Reduce exposure to smoky air by remaining indoors with windows and doors closed, if possible.
  • If you cannot keep windows and doors closed due to high temperatures, seek out cooling centers in your area.
  • Stay tuned to local media for changes in smoke or weather conditions. Bay Area information can be found at the Bay Area Air Quality Management District (link is external) website and the EPA Air Now (link is external) website. 

Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, and irritated sinuses. Substances released from fires far away, while very unlikely to cause any significant health hazards, can contribute to headaches, nausea, and dizziness. Elevated particulate matter in the air can trigger shortness of breath and/or wheezing in those who suffer from asthma, emphysema or COPD.  

For most people, the conditions in the Bay Area remain unpleasant rather than dangerous, however elderly persons, children and individuals with respiratory illnesses are particularly susceptible to elevated air pollution levels and should take extra precautions to avoid exposure.  If you have asthma or other lung disease, make sure you follow your doctor's directions about taking your medicines and following your asthma management plan, and seek care in a timely manner if your symptoms are worsening.

What should I do I feel ill?

Many of us are feeling the effects of the fires. Minor symptoms such as irritated eyes and throat, nausea, headache, and mild cough are best treated by staying indoors and standard measures such as hydration, steam, ginger/lemon, and analgesics like acetaminophen.  However those experiencing significant respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent cough, or wheezing should seek care.

Students who are unsure whether they need to come in or where they should go can call the UHS Advice Line at (510) 643-7197; when Tang is closed, the Advice Nurse Line is answered by our After Hours referral line.  Students may also call the 24/7 Nurseline at (800) 681-4065.

Tang Center Primary and Urgent Care staff can assess and treat minor symptoms related to smoke inhalation including asthma exacerbations requiring inhalation treatments.  See hours of operation. 

Faculty/Staff should contact their physician or go to the nearest emergency room. 

When should I call 911?

  • You cough up or vomit blood.
  • You have a fast heartbeat and chest pain.
  • You have severe shortness of breath or wheezing.
  • You have weakness, and pale and clammy skin, or faint.
  • You are feeling very confused or dizzy.
  • Your lips or fingernails turn blue.

What if I must be outside?

If you MUST be active outside in smoky areas, consider use of a particulate respirator such as an N95 to filter out some of the particulate matter.  These masks do not filter harmful chemicals found in smoke, but can provide comfort for those sensitive to the smoke. Find out more information about face masks (PDF) (link is external) and how to properly choose and wear a respirator. There can usually be purchased at many hardware stores and pharmacies, however local supplies are now limited and the UHS Pharmacy no longer has any available. Some may find a similar comfort from wearing a damp scarf or cloth over nose and mouth, which may filter some of the particles.  Note that simple “surgical” masks will not filter particulate from smoke.


General information about acute smoke inhalation injury

What is smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation is when you breathe in harmful smoke from burning materials and gases. Harmful smoke experienced up close, such as in a burning building, may contain chemicals or poisons, such as carbon monoxide and cyanide. When you inhale this harmful smoke, your lungs and airway may become irritated, swollen, and blocked. The damaged airway and lungs prevent oxygen from getting into your blood, and respiratory failure may develop. Respiratory failure means you cannot breathe well enough to get oxygen to the cells of your body.

What causes smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation most commonly happens when you get trapped inside a burning structure, such as a house, office building, or factory. The harmful chemicals found in smoke may come from burning rubber, melamine, coal, plastic, or electrical wiring.  Smoke inhalation may also happen if you are near a burning forest. The highest concentrations of harmful chemicals often occur after the main fire, when building or wood are smoldering.

What are the signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation?

The signs and symptoms of smoke inhalation depend on the source of the smoke and how long you were exposed to the smoke:

  • Airway burns, causing throat pain, hoarse voice, and noisy breathing.  Patients with severe airway burns almost always have burns to face and head, or severe burns elsewhere on the body.  It is more common for smoke to cause mild throat irritation, which is not a sign of a significant burn to the airway.
  • Chest pain or cough
  • Shortness of breath, in particular in asthmatics and others prone to bronchospasm
  • Headache, abdominal pain, and nausea
  • Eye irritation or vision problems
  • Fainting
  • Soot in your nostrils or throat

How is smoke inhalation diagnosed?

Caregivers will ask you about the source of the smoke that you inhaled. They will also ask about the amount of time that you were exposed to the smoke. You may need further testing including blood tests, chest X-Ray, bronchoscopy, or pulmonary function testing if your exposure was significant.

How is smoke inhalation treated?

  • Antidotes: These are substances that may stop or control the effects of the smoke you inhaled. Caregivers may give different antidotes depending on the type of smoke you inhaled.
  • Bronchodilators: You may need bronchodilators like albuterol to help open the air passages in your lungs, and help you breathe more easily.
  • Steroids: Steroid medicine may help to open your air passages so you can breathe easier.
  • Antibiotics: This medicine is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.
  • Medicines to treat pain, swelling, or fever.

What are the risks of smoke inhalation?

Smoke inhalation can be a serious injury, and evaluation and treatment is needed as soon as possible. If it is not treated early, the smoke may damage your lungs and cause breathing problems, and in worst cases may lead to respiratory failure. This may affect your heart and brain, and it may be life-threatening.

How can smoke inhalation be prevented?

To prevent fires, make sure that electrical wiring, chimneys, wood stoves, and space heaters are working properly. Use flammable liquids safely and store them in a locked area out of the reach of children.

Do not leave lit cigarettes unattended, and discard them properly. Keep cigarette lighters and matches in a safe place where children cannot reach them.

Make an escape plan in case a fire breaks out in your home. Practice it often with your family. Crawl on the floor to escape a burning building. The air will be cooler and cleaner.

Use smoke detectors in your house, and check them regularly to make sure they are working.



Health Advisory Smoke Regional Fires. (2017, October 12). Retrieved from


Health Services
Building: Campus Center, Lower Level
Contact: Front Desk
Phone: 408.864.8732


Last Updated: 10/13/17