How California Wildfires Can Cause Sinus Infections

We are in the thick of California wildfire season again, and with it comes the usual hazards: evacuations, scorched earth, orange skies, eye-stinging smoke — and sinus infections.

How can you tell whether you have wildfire-induced sinusitis? And how exactly can you avoid it? Let’s explore.

Sinus Infections + Smoke

Sinuses are air-filled pockets in our skull (forehead, bridge of nose, behind the eyes and in the apples of the cheeks) that help humidify and filter the air we breathe. These pockets are lined with mucus that filters dirt and other particles to keep your airways clear.

Sometimes the mucus fails to trap those pathogens — virus, bacteria or mold — and a sinus infection is born. The sinus cavity then fills with fluid and becomes blocked.

Smoke, including smoke from wildfires, exacerbates this process. 

Wildfire smoke is composed of vegetation, building materials and gases. Breathing in these noxious fumes causes the cilia (tiny hairlike structures in the nose, sinuses and lungs) to stop working. When the cilia are damaged, mucus backs up in the sinuses and pathogens begin to multiply there, leaving you open to a sinus infection.

The health-damaging particles in wildfire smoke are called “PM2.5,” meaning particulate matter that is less than 2.5 micrometers in size. (The average human hair is 70 micrometers in diameter.) 

Billions of these particles float in the air and drift for miles and miles, making breathing difficult for everyone in their path and worsening symptoms for anyone with pulmonary illness such as asthma or COPD.

Therefore it is extremely important to stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water. This action can keep the cilia working against the toxic contaminants coming from the smoke, and thus ward off a sinus infection.

Symptoms of a Sinus Infection vs. Smoke Irritation

Sinus InfectionSmoke Irritation
Pain and pressure in the sinuses (behind the nose and cheeks, between the eyes and sometimes the forehead area). A feeling of fullness or congestion, runny nose, a hoarse voice, sore throat, and cough.Coughing, trouble breathing, stinging eyes, scratchy throat, runny nose, irritated sinuses, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, headaches, tiredness, fast heartbeat, asthma attack

How to Avoid a Wildfire Sinus Infection

The best way to avoid a wildfire sinus infection is to stay inside when there’s a wildfire nearby.

How to protect yourself:

  1. Check the Air Quality Index before leaving your home. Levels ranging from 151 to 200 are considered unhealthy; from 201 to 300, very unhealthy; and 301 and above, hazardous.
  2. Stay inside with the windows and doors closed.
  3. Keep the air conditioner running, but make sure the filter is clean and close the fresh-air intake to keep smoke from entering.
  4. Do not burn candles or use gas stoves or fireplaces.
  5. Avoid vacuuming.
  6. Change your clothes if you’ve been outside.
  7. Drink fluids to stay hydrated.

What If I Have Chronic Sinus Infections?

If you suffer from chronic sinusitis, with or without wildfire smoke, give Dr. Marc Kayem a call. You aren’t alone — more than 37 million Americans have persistent sinus infections.
You may be helped by trying a new, minimally invasive treatment called balloon sinuplasty. Schedule a consultation with Dr. Kayem today!