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Doctors Find Wildfire Smoke May Damage the Skin

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A massive smoke plume, powered by strong winds, rises above the the Woolsey Fire on November 9, 2018 in Malibu, California.  (David McNew/Getty Images)

Wildfire smoke may not only be choking people’s lungs. It could also be irritating their skin, according to a new UCSF and UC Berkeley study published in JAMA Dermatology.

Tiny particles floating in wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on the body, and it’s well documented that pollutants can trigger a scratchy throat, coughing fits or even a heart attack. Exposure to air pollutants contributed to 3.7 million to 4.8 million deaths across the globe in 2015.

Previous research has found that skin conditions like eczema may be exacerbated by cigarette smoke or heavy air pollution in dense cities. Smoky days may also cause the skin to flare up. 

“Wildfires cause particulate matter to circulate in the air which could settle on the skin, similarly to other airborne irritants,” Dr. Dawn Marie Davis, a professor of dermatology and pediatrics at the Mayo Clinic, said in an email. “The skin may be negatively impacted by exposure to wildfire smoke.”

Researchers who conducted the new study analyzed data from more than 8,000 patient visits to dermatology clinics in the San Francisco Bay Area over a two-week period in 2018, when the Camp Fire scorched Butte County and the number of patients seeking medical treatment for itchy skin significantly increased. Adult visits went up 20% and pediatric visits nearly 90% compared to the same period in earlier years. Scientists also noted an increase in prescribed medications, like steroids, suggesting patients experienced severe reactions.

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“Air pollution leads to widespread exacerbation,” said Raj Fadadu, a UCSF medical student and lead author of the study. “So it may not only affect patients who have preexisting disease, but could have far-reaching outcomes in patients who have healthier skin.”

When pollutants penetrate skin cells they can trigger oxidative stress and cause inflammation.

Fatadu is especially worried about people like agricultural and construction workers who can’t avoid the outdoors during smoke events. He recommends wearing long sleeves and pants on smoky days. Thick moisturizers may also create a protective barrier over the skin, he said.

The new study is one of the first to look at how wildfire smoke damages the skin. In the future, the scientists plan to follow patients for longer periods of time across multiple geographic areas.

“It’s possible that not all wildfires have the same effect on the skin, since fires can have different components,” said Dr. Maria Wei, a dermatologist and melanoma specialist at UCSF and a senior author of the study. “We studied the Camp Fire, which burned the city of Paradise as well as forests. Future studies will determine the generalizability of our findings.”

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