The western United States is burning. With numerous wild fires in California, Oregon and Washington, residents in those states need to be extra cautious to avoid getting sick.

Wild fires are currently so bad that in some areas the sky is an eerie orangish color. Obviously, that is not good to breathe in, but how bad is it really? 

The answer depends on the air quality, underlying health conditions and the age of the person. For example, children and senior citizens are more susceptible to health conditions from breathing in wildfire smoke than healthy young adults, but that doesn’t mean that it’s safe for anyone to breathe smoke-filled air.

If you step outside in air filled with wildfire smoke, some symptoms might hit you right away, like burning eyes, a runny nose, and coughing. In the long term, there are much more serious side effects, such as making symptoms of heart and lung conditions worse that they would be otherwise. Especially in the age of COVID-19, you don’t want to do anything to compromise your lungs.

Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, explained to Prevention that the mucus membranes in our nose and throat filter out impurities, but when these membranes are dry, they aren’t very effective at filtering out impurities, and the smoke from wild fires causes the air to be very dry.

Dr. Casciari added, “Your lungs can handle a certain amount of this, but if they’re overwhelmed by these particles you can get an inflammatory-type reaction and ultimately a fibrosis.” A fibrosis is a scarring of the lungs which can make it difficult to breathe.

Besides lung issues, wild fire smoke can also cause problems with the heart and even lead to a heart attack or stroke in adults over the age of 65.

If you live in an area affected by wild fires, it is best to stay inside as much as possible. It is also important to keep doors and windows closed so that smoky air from outside doesn’t make its way inside. If possible, run your air conditioner and use HEPA air filtration.

If you are going to go outside, now is not the time to go for a run or bike ride. Dr. Casciari warns, “When you exercise, you’re breathing in large quantities of air and bringing it into deeper parts of the lungs.”

For more about the effects of wildfire smoke, watch the video below.