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How to Minimize Unanticipated Lung Problems Caused by Campfires

Fire is part of the romance of summer. Don’t you just love an evening sitting on a blanket at the beach next to a roaring bonfire? Gathering with friends around a backyard fire pit sharing food and laughter? Cooking gooey s’mores over a campfire with your children?

Those nights make memories. Unfortunately, they could also lead to lung problems.

The good news is, there are ways to enjoy summer’s fun fires while minimizing the possible damage to your lungs. Christian Bime, MD, a critical care medicine specialist with a focus in pulmonology at Banner – University Medical Center Tucson, outlined the risks and offered tips for safer summertime evenings.

What’s dangerous about summer campfires?

You know what it’s like when you spend an evening around a summer fire. The smoke gets into everything—your clothes, blankets, towels and even your hair. That smoke gets into your lungs, too. And the risk and health impacts to your lungs is that you breathe in tiny irritants when you breathe in the smoke.

“Summer fires can generate what we call particulate matter,” Dr. Bime said. The particulates from fire are very small—they have a diameter 30 times smaller than a human hair. These smaller particulates pose a bigger risk to your health than larger particulates, and the lungs and the heart are at greatest risk.

The danger of lung or heart problems is highest for people with preexisting conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, interstitial lung disease, heart failure and irregular heartbeats.

Children are also at high risk, because their lungs are still developing, and they might have undiagnosed asthma or reactive airways disease. And older adults’ risk is higher because they are more likely to have chronic heart and lung conditions.

“Many studies have linked exposures to small particulates with increased hospital admissions and emergency room visits and even deaths,” Dr. Bime said. “High-risk folks should consider alternatives to repeated exposure to particulates.”

And the health effects aren’t always clear right away. Long-term exposure to small particulates from smoke can lead to low lung function, chronic bronchitis and premature death.

Along with small particulates, you might also be breathing in harmful gases, depending on the type of wood you’re burning. “Many people do not realize that burning certain types of wood can release potential toxins,” Dr. Bime said.

How can you enjoy summer campfires more safely?

Dr. Bime gave a few tips to keep your lungs healthy when you’re around fire:

  • Keep the time you’re exposed to the fire and smoke as short as possible
  • Sit away from the fire and pay attention to the way the wind is blowing so you can minimize your contact with the smoke
  • Keep your fire small
  • Choose natural gas or propane instead of wood
  • If you burn wood, use dry wood—seasoned, dry wood burns hotter and cleaner than wet wood
  • Avoid burning plastic—don’t toss plastic trash in the fire
  • Burn wood only in well-ventilated places

The bottom line

Gathering around summer fires can be a fun way to spend time with family and friends. But the smoke from these fires can be dangerous to your health. Play it safe and keep your smoke exposure to a minimum so you can keep your lungs as healthy as possible.

If you are concerned you might have lung problems, a pulmonologist can help. To find a lung specialist near you visit

Looking for more ways to stay safe while you’re having fun this summer? We’ve got you covered:

Pulmonology and Asthma Safety