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 website and the EPA Air Now 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) 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.


 See general information about smoke inhalation injury

NOTICE: The Tang Center is currently out of masks. We are sorry for the inconvenience. Please check back for updates.

 smoke inhalation

Emotional support for students  

Emotional support for staff

Employee Assistance is available for confidential support. Schedule phone consultations and appointments for office visits at (510) 643-7754 or employeeassistance@berkeley.edu(link sends e-mail)(link sends e-mail).