Inhaling carbon monoxide decreases the body’s oxygen supply. This can cause headaches, reduce alertness, and aggravate a heart condition known as angina. Fine particles are able to travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Inhaling fine particles can cause a variety of health effects, including respiratory irritation and shortness of breath, and can worsen medical conditions such as asthma and heart disease. During increased physical exertion, cardiovascular effects can be worsened by exposure to carbon monoxide and particulate matter. Once exposure stops, symptoms from inhaling carbon monoxide or fine particles generally diminish, but may last for a couple of days.
Avoiding smoky situations is the best way to avoid exposure. If your age or health status places you at greater risk from smoke exposure you should speak with your doctor about alternative steps you can take when encountering smoky situations. Anyone with persisting or frequent symptoms that they think are associated with smoke exposure should see their health care provider. Additional information on carbon monoxide and fine particles can be found at the web addresses listed at the end of this fact sheet.
There is also the potential for chronic health effects from exposure to the components of smoke. Long term exposure to ambient air containing fine particles has been associated with increases in cardiovascular disease and mortality in populations living in areas with higher fine particulate air pollution. Frequent exposure to smoke for brief periods may also cause long-term health effects. Firefighters, who are exposed frequently to smoke, have been examined for long-term health effects (for example, cancer, lung disease, and cardiovascular disease) of repeated smoke exposures. The findings from these studies are not consistent or conclusive. Some studies show an increased frequency of these diseases among firefighters compared to similar male reference populations (e.g., male policemen, white males in the general population), while others do not.