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Wildfire smoke is composed of tiny particles and chemicals. As they travel through the air from the site of the fire to you, they often pick up other pollutants and energies from the sun that make them even less healthy than their original forms. Most of us know about or have even experienced first hand the impact of wildfire smoke on our lungs or heart, but the ways it affects the rest of our bodies isn’t as obvious. The smallest of smoke particles, usually referred to as PM2.5, and toxic gasses, like nitrogen dioxide or ozone, can get deep into the lungs where they are moved into the bloodstream just like oxygen. Once there, they have access to the rest of your body where they can disrupt any number of bodily functions, up to and including raising the risk for many diseases. 

When wildfire smoke is rampant, resources like antioxidants that your body expends dealing with can't be used to keep us healthy in other ways. One growing body of research studying is the impact of wildfire smoke on the mind. In addition to the abject fear associated with seeing a natural disaster outside your front door, there are ways the smoke alters how your brain works at the biological level that can induce depression, PTSD, and generalized anxiety. Let’s take a look at some of the ways this happens and what to do about it.


Back of an ambulance

More pollution means psychiatric diseases get more serious

When air pollution goes up, emergency room visits for psychiatric diseases also increases, and the impact can last for several days. One study on hospitalizations for depression in China found that there was a large amount one the day of exposure to an elevated level of PM2.5, then an even larger spike 5 days later. Similar studies share the conclusion that it is not particles alone that contribute to more psychiatric emergency room visits, but the combination of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and ozone in addition to particles that lead to the issues. However, the correlated amount of PM2.5 that contributes to an increase in psychiatric hospital admissions is fairly similar across studies at around a 3% increase for every 10 ug/m3 of PM2.5.

There are considerably more serious acute impacts to consider, as well. A study in Vancouver, Canada found a 23% increase in suicide attempts by men a day after exposure to elevated nitrogen dioxide. Another in Salt Lake City, Utah saw a greater likelihood of successful suicide after certain negative air quality events.

This means that when wildfire smoke is impacting the area, assume any indicators of flagging mental health from yourself, friends, loved ones, or coworkers are coming along with an additional risk factor and should be taken more seriously. Make sure that basic coping plans are in place and that everyone knows who to call if there is a mental health emergency.

Coffee spilled on a sidewalk

Wildfire smoke just makes things harder

Wildfire smoke has been linked to anxiety, depression, and PTSD, particularly among people who already have problems. One study in Australia measured how bad major psychological disorders were impacted five years after a major wildfire. They found that the time directly after the fire was associated with worse PTSD, depression, and other major mental health diseases. They noted that having previous life stressors was the biggest contributing factor apart from the fire. Researchers who look at 7th to 12th grade students in Canada following a wildfire found higher depression, PTSD, anxiety, suicidal thoughts than before the fire. More of these kids were using tobacco or drugs and reported lower quality of life and resilience scores.

This type of generalized trouble can hit the family unit as a whole, but at least one study found that framing the disaster in a more positive light gives kids help with wildfire-related PTSD. This means that doom-and-gloom talk can make it harder to recover from the stress of a wildfire. Though it might not come easy, talking about the positive aspects of the event, like how well everyone stuck together, can cancel out some of the tendency for post-traumatic stress.

View from backseat of driver rubbing eyes in rearview mirror

This is your brain on wildfire smoke

In the hours and days after exposure to PM2.5, our brains don’t work quite as fast. One study looked at how well Americans could learn a brain-training attention game over 20 plays and found that exposure to PM2.5 in the previous 1 or 2 days reduced the final score by 6% on average. Some researchers have made the case in published research that the smoke particles impair the function of brain chemicals, impacting short-term memory.

Changes in how the brain processes information have been observed in people who have been exposed to wildfire smoke. When scanned, their brains appear to have to work harder for similar tasks among the unexposed. The changes appear to be a result of the psychological trauma as opposed to the toxicity of smoke.

The body of evidence showing how wildfire smoke damages the way our brains work is growing. During wildfire events, be aware that your thinking isn’t quite what it should be and if it’s an option to refrain from taxing mental activities that have large consequences like financial decisions or test-taking.

Follow these tips to minimize your exposure to smoke, and keep an eye on this blog and our Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter accounts for more information on what’s in your air. 


Header photo by Tegan Mierle on Unsplash, ambulance photo by Erik Mclean on Unsplash, coffee on floor photo by Jan Antonin Kolar on Unsplash, and driver rubbing eyes photo by Johan Funke also on Unsplash.

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