Does wearing a face mask protect from wildfire smoke?

SEATTLE -- Air quality in the Pacific Northwest has reached some of its worst levels ever this month due to wildfires burning in British Columbia and Eastern Washington. Air quality alerts are in effect for Washington state through at least Wednesday, according to the National Weather Service.

So should you be wearing a mask? The short answer: not really.

The CDC says, "people who stay indoors or limit their time outdoors during wildfire emergencies are doing the most effective thing to avoid exposure and may not need to wear a respirator."

"People who must be outside for extended periods of time in smoky air or an ash-covered areas may benefit from using a tightfitting N95 or P100 respirator to reduce their exposure."

Wildfire smoke contains very small particles and gases that can irritate your eyes and lungs and worsen chronic heart and lung diseases, especially in children and older adults.

Respirator masks labeled N95 or N100 filter out fine particles but not hazardous gases, like carbon dioxide. Those masks can be found at hardware stores and pharmacies.

Soft doctor-type masks, that you might also find at a store, will not protect against smoke.

The Washington State Department of Health also warns against using bandanas or towels (wet or dry) or tissue held over the mouth and nose. They say it may relieve dryness but they won’t protect your lungs from wildfire smoke.

Even a proper face mask will not work for everyone.

(Photos via the Washington State Department of health)

What can I do to protect myself and my family from outdoor smoke?

    What if I don’t have air conditioning and it’s hot indoors?

    Even when the air quality is poor, it’s always important to pay attention to the heat and stay hydrated—overheating is dangerous. If it’s too hot indoors to keep your windows and doors closed, first consider leaving the area or going to an indoor place with air conditioning, like a friend or relative’s home. If it’s hot indoors during poor air quality, these steps can reduce the heat: