Scratch That Itch: Wildfires Might Be the Cause


By Kevin Ritchart

Wildfires can have a devastating effect on both people and the environment, but a recent study has uncovered an unexpected consequence that’s only skin deep.

A team of researchers from the University of California-San Francisco (UCSF) looked at visits to the university’s dermatology clinic during an 18-week period in October 2018, which coincides with the start of the most destructive wildfire in the state’s history. Known as the Camp Fire, this wildfire lasted 17 days and destroyed almost 19,000 buildings.

The team also reviewed data from the same time frame in 2015 and 2016 when there were no wildfires reported in the area. The findings were surprising.

“A very short-term exposure to air pollution causes an immediate signal in terms of skin response,” said Dr. Maria Wei, a dermatologist at UCSF.

Effect on Children

Wei and her team found that clinic visits increased in all age groups, but children were the most affected. While adult visits increased by 15 percent, children’s visits climbed by nearly 50 percent.

“When you’re born, your skin isn’t totally mature,” Wei said. “So eczema is more common in children than adults.”

The study, which was published in the April 2021 issue of JAMA Dermatology, found a link between fire-related pollution and oral eczema medications that were prescribed to adults. Oral medication is often used in severe cases where skin cream provides no relief.

Where There’s Smoke…

The UCSF study also examined the effects of smoke-related aerosols on the skin. Some chemicals that are released into the air can be directly toxic to cells. They can cause a type of cell damage known as oxidation. Other aerosols can trigger allergic reactions. A person’s stress level can even play a role in skin reactions.

The UCSF study only looked for links between skin irritation during one wildfire and visits to a single hospital system, so it’s possible that the findings don’t apply to other fires or locations. But it’s smart to take precautions.

If wildfire smoke is polluting the air where you live, it’s best to stay indoors when possible. If you must go outside, wear long sleeves and pants. Using a skin moisturizer regularly can help provide an extra layer of protection for your skin.

Discussion Questions

  • Aside from what was mentioned in the article, what other negative effects can wildfires have on people and the environment?
  • What are some precautions you can take to protect yourself and your family if there are wildfires near you?


  • Aerosol
  • Consequence
  • Dermatologist
  • Eczema
  • Oxidation