If you live in the Northeast right now, you’ve likely encountered smoke in the air. Wildfires in Canada have massively affected the area’s air quality, leading to warnings for people to stay inside.
The health hazards of wildfire smoke ― even if you’re thousands of miles away from the source ― are real and wide-ranging. We know that smoke can affect our lungs, leading to coughing or trouble breathing. But there’s another common symptom many people may not immediately realize is a result of smoke: headaches.
In New York City, where the air quality is currently ranked the worst in the world as of Wednesday, many were tweeting about how they started to experience the early signs of a migraine. As I sit here and write this story, staring at an orange, apocalyptic-looking Manhattan skyline, I can feel tension progressively rising in my temples.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, head pain is an expected symptom of wildfire smoke. The conditions can also cause sinus pain and congestion, which can lead to the feeling of a headache.
A study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which analyzed emergency department visits during wildfires in California, found that the smoke’s particulate matter (called PM 2.5) is associated with tension headaches. “As climate change drives longer and more intense wildfire seasons, wildfire PM 2.5 may contribute to more frequent headaches,” the study authors wrote.
Symptoms from wildfire smoke occur because particulate matter can get deep into our lungs and enter our bloodstream, Colleen Reid, an environmental epidemiologist and health geographer with the University of Colorado Boulder, previously told HuffPost. After that point, the particles can travel to other organs and cause inflammation.
There is less known about how smoke affects migraines, but research suggests that inflammation can play a role in triggering them. The NIH study did not find that migraines or cluster headaches were associated with increased wildfire smoke. That said, people are reporting migraine episodes now ― coincidentally, when the air quality is poor.
How To Protect Yourself And Alleviate Wildfire Smoke Symptoms
If you’re feeling the effects of the air quality, there are a few ways to reduce your symptoms and prevent further damage.
First and foremost, stay indoors. Residents of affected areas are advised to avoid the air as much as possible, especially if you’re unprotected. If you need to go outside, wear a high-quality face covering like an N95 mask to help you filter as many particles as possible.
You should also check your home’s air filtration. MERV-13 filters are considered a gold standard for reducing pollution in your home. You can also use a standalone HEPA air purifier to help. There are guides online on making your own air purification systems at home (for example, you can use a MERV-13 and put it in a box fan or in front of your AC unit).
To mitigate a headache, make sure to stay hydrated. You can also use a hot or cold compress to reduce pain, according to the Mayo Clinic. Rest in a quiet and dark room. If necessary, medications like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also help.
It’s important to take your exposure to wildfire smoke seriously ― for the sake of your health.