Smoke can dramatically worsen air quality in Contra Costa County, even from fires hundreds of miles away.
Smoke from wildfires contains many air pollutants that are of concern for health, including particulate matter, carbon monoxide and ozone.
Exposure to smoky air can make anyone feel unwell, with coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes or runny nose. Healthy people who are exposed to smoky air for a few days to a few weeks are unlikely to experience long-term health impacts.
But for some people, prolonged exposure to unhealthy air can have serious health effects, including people with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung or heart disease, young children, pregnant women and older adults.
Everyone should limit their exposure when air quality is poor by staying inside when possible, particularly those in sensitive groups. Limit strenuous outdoor activity or exercise – anything that makes you take more breaths or breathe deeper.
Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe or worsening.
Call your healthcare provider if your symptoms are severe or worsening.
- People who have asthma or a Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), such as emphysema
- People who have heart disease or high blood pressure
- Pregnant women and young children
- Older adults
People with asthma should continue to follow their asthma plan, and those with chronic lung or heart disease should continue to take their medications regularly. Keep at least five days of medication on hand.
Pregnant women, older adults and young children should avoid exposure to outside air whenever possible. Use of a mask is not an effective substitute for staying inside.
Consult your healthcare provider if you have concerns during a period of unhealthy air quality.
Before fire season:
- To limit shopping trips, keep food on hand to last several days.
- Keep at least a five-day supply of necessary medications on hand.
- Install high-efficiency air filters (MERV 13 or higher) for your home's central air conditioning.
- Consider a portable home air cleaner, but NOT one that generates ozone – see for a list of products that emit little or no ozone.
- If you choose to use masks, pick a NIOSH-certified N-95 or N-100 respirator-style mask and learn how to wear them BEFORE they are needed. Note that masking is not a substitute for staying inside when air quality is poor.
The best way to stay safe on days with unhealthy air quality is to stay inside – just keeping doors and windows closed can reduce your exposure to smoke by 50% or more.
- Keep windows and doors closed
- Run the air conditioner if it's hot but remember to keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent smoke from outside getting inside
- Use room air cleaners if you have them. Humidifiers won't clean the air, but can ease eye and airway irritation
- Don't smoke or burn anything in the house, including candles or incense
- Avoid frying or broiling food, and using gas, propane or wood-burning stoves or furnaces
- Don't use aerosol sprays or your vacuum, unless it has a HEPA filter
- If you don't have air conditioning and it's too hot to stay inside, seek shelter somewhere with air conditioning, such as a shopping mall or library
If You Must Go Out
If you cannot stay inside when the air is unhealthy, reduce your health risk by:
- Not smoking
- Avoiding exercise or strenuous work that causes you to breathe more or take deeper breaths
- Keep your auto's windows and vents closed and operate the air conditioning in "re-circulate" mode
- Wear a NIOSH-certified N-95 or N-100 mask that fits you properly. See the package insert for instructions on how to put on the mask and how to make sure it fits
- Other masks, such as bandanas or surgical masks, offer no protection
- Plan your outdoor time for when there is relatively better air quality – air quality can change during the day, and from day to day. Visit baaqmd.gov for the local air quality forecast
A NIOSH-certified N-95 or N-100 respirator-style mask should only be used as a last resort, and never as a substitute for staying in an indoor space with filtered air.
Contra Costa Health Services does not provide masks to the public.
You should know that:
- Masking may not fully protect from wildfire smoke particles.
- Bandanas and typical surgeon masks do nothing to protect against wildfire smoke particles. Nor does cloth (wet or dry), paper masks or tissues. Only NIOSH-certified N-95 or N-100 respirator masks should be worn.
- Masks, even when worn properly, can become uncomfortable and hot.
- A properly fitted N-95 or N-100 respirator makes it difficult to breathe and is difficult to use for long periods of time.
- Taking a respirator-style mask on and off can cause fine particulate matter to build up in the mask, which the wearer will breathe when the mask is put back on the face.
- Wearing an ill-fitted mask can lead to a false sense of security and overexertion.
- Reused masks generally do not provide protection. Do not save and reuse masks.
- N-95 and N-100 respirators may be dangerous for certain people with lung or heart conditions and may lead to.
- Increased heart rate.
- Increased respiratory rate.
- Labored breathing.
- Certified N-95 or N-100 respirators are not available for children. Children should not wear these masks – they do not fit properly and can impede breathing.
- Facial hair generally prevents the proper fit of a respirator.
Follow the instructions on your mask's packaging – click here for general advice.
Q: Is breathing smoky air really bad for you?
A: Unhealthy air can make anyone feel sick. Common symptoms include coughing, scratchy throat, irritated sinuses and shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, stinging eyes or runny nose.
Healthy people who are exposed to smoky air for a few days to a few weeks are unlikely to experience long-term health impacts.
But for some people, exposure to unhealthy air that lasts hours to days can have serious health effects, including those with cardiovascular or respiratory conditions such as asthma, lung or heart disease, young children, pregnant women and older adults.
Q: Are there long-term health risks associated with breathing smoky air?
A: Healthy people who are exposed to smoky air for a few days to a few weeks are unlikely to experience long-term health impacts.
Q: Is it safe to eat food that's been exposed to smoky air?
A: The health concern about smoke is the tiny particles it contains, which can be inhaled into the lungs. These particles can settle on the surface of food but are unlikely to penetrate it. So, food such as produce would be safe to eat if washed thoroughly. Liquids and food that cannot be washed with clean water should be discarded.
Q: Will smoky air hurt my pets?
A: Exposure to smoky air can affect animals the same way it affects people. Consider keeping your dogs and cats inside during days with poor air quality. (It's OK to let the dog out to do its business, but probably not for a long walk.)
Q: Should my school/work/business/building close due to poor air quality?
A: CCHS can provide health advice, but the decision to close or take other protective measures belongs to those in charge of the school/business/building.
Q: What mask does Contra Costa Health Services (CCHS) recommend?
A: CCHS only recommends using a mask as a last resort. Stay inside if possible. If you choose to mask, only NIOSH-certified N-95 or N-100 masks provide protection. They will have "NIOSH" and "N-95" or "N-100" printed on them.
Q: Does CCHS provide masks? Where can I get them?
A: CCHS does not provide masks. N-95 and N-100 masks are commonly available at hardware stores and online. Plan ahead – stores often run out during bad air days.
Q: How long is a mask effective? Is it safe for extended use?
A: Consult the instructions for your specific mask for that information. Generally, a respirator-style mask can be re-used if it is not dirty or damaged, and can still form a tight seal against your face.
Q: Can I wear glasses with my mask? What about facial hair?
A: Glasses do fit over the straps of the mask. Facial hair can prevent the mask from sealing properly over the nose and mouth, making it ineffective. The mask should feel tight on the face.
Q: Are masks safe for people with heart or lung conditions?
A: People with chronic respiratory, cardiac or other medical conditions that can make breathing difficult should consult their healthcare provider before using a mask.
Q: How do I make sure my mask fits? Does someone have to fit me for my mask?
A: In medical and professional settings, masks are typically fitted and used by people with training. There is a risk that masks fitted by untrained people may not fit as well, but they still offer some protection. Follow the instructions on the packaging and refer to this guide.
Q: Will any masks fit my child?
A: N-95 and N-100 masks are not currently made in child sizes.
Q: Do other masks besides N-95 or N-100 masks offer any protection?
A: For wildfire smoke, they really do not. N-95 and N-100 masks form a tight seal around the mouth and nose and filter out the tiny particles in smoke that irritate our airways and lungs. Other masks do not do that.
Q: What kind of filters do I need for my home furnace to keep the air clean?
A: Install high-efficiency air filters (MERV 13 or higher) for your home's central air conditioning. They're available online or at the hardware store – check your model to ensure you buy the right filter.
Q: What do I do if my home doesn't have air conditioning, or if the doors or windows don't keep out the smoke?
A: Consider visiting an enclosed public space with recirculated air, such as a nearby shopping mall or library.
Q: What should people who are homeless do?
A: Beyond public spaces such as libraries and malls, Contra Costa has shelters, CARE centers and warming centers where people experiencing homelessness can get out of the bad air. Call 211 to connect with a CORE outreach team.
- Wildfire Smoke Factsheet
- Visit baaqmd.gov or sparetheair.org for air quality information
- Visit airnow.gov for current air quality in your zip code
- Wildfire Health Tips from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH)
- CDPH Infographic – Safety Masks: The Proper Model and Fit
- Advice from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about room air cleaners
- Information from California about room air cleaners that do not create ozone