I have migraine and get headaches for a bunch of reasons. One of them is exposure to smoke or pollution which contains carbon monoxide.
We know how important a fireplace is during winter and though it has a proper outlet to let the smoke escape, some of it does enter the room. And this smoke does contain some amounts of carbon monoxide and other toxic gases.
So can fireplace smoke give you a headache, even if you do not suffer from migraine? Well, it depends. Some people are more sensitive to gases like carbon monoxide, benzene and other hydrocarbons that are emitted when a fireplace burns. It can cause a dull headache to these people on exposure to the smoke. However, it must be noted that this is true only for a wood-burning fireplace and not for a gas or an electric fireplace.
Wood Smoke Can Be Quite Toxic
Wood contains a mixture of chemicals and it is obvious that when you burn it, it releases a number of gases. Some of these gases can be toxic for humans like benzene, formaldehyde, hydrocarbons and carbon monoxide.
Exposure to wood smoke can cause a lot of issues like respiratory problems and irritation in the eyes. For some people, exposure to wood smoke can give rise to a headache. While this is more common to people suffering from migraine, it can also affect other people who do not suffer from migraine.
Mainly it is the carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emitted by the burning wood that is the cause of the headache. Although a little exposure to it won’t result in poisoning, if you are sensitive to the smell of burning wood, the combination of carbon monoxide and burnt wood can be a trigger for a headache.
Causes of Smoke to Escape into the Room
Usually, smoke from the fireplace does not enter the room and escapes through the chimney. I mean that is how it is supposed to be. But sometimes due to inappropriate conditions, some smoke can escape into the room. Let us see what could cause that.
Accumulation of soot and creosote along the walls of the chimney
Creosotes are tiny masses of carbon chemicals emitted when wood or fossil fuel is burnt. When a fireplace is burnt, it gives rise to smoke which contains tiny carbon particles and creosote which escape through the chimney.
Over a period of time, if the chimney is not cleaned thoroughly, soot and creosote can accumulate along its walls. This can cause partial smoke to rise through the chimney while some of it escapes from the front of the fireplace. Hence it is very important to clean the chimney regularly.
Less difference in external and internal temperature
If there is not much difference between the external temperature and the temperature within the house, even though the fireplace drafts well, there are chances of smoke being puffed in the house.
So it is advisable to light a fireplace only when it is very cold outside. Otherwise you can make do with centralized heating. Anyways if it isn’t too cold, you won’t be need to light the fireplace.
Damp wood for burning
Burning damp wood can not only result make it difficult to light the fire but it can also result in smoke as the chimney is not able to draw well due to low heat levels. Now of course you won’t be using soaking wet wood, but if you thought even damp wood would do, you’re mistaken.
The wood for the fireplace should completely dry. The kind where you can easily snap a twig and you hear the crackling sound of the fire.
Damper is closed or partially open
Damper is a valve or a plate that stops the flow and regulation of air inside the chimney. If it is closed or even partially open, the smoke will not escape through the chimney causing it to enter the room.
Hence whenever you smell and feel significant amount of smoke entering your room, make sure to check all the above points for the reason. If you’re not able to figure out on your own, it is better to call a professional to solve the problem.
Preventing smoke to enter the room
If you own a wooden fireplace, it is important that you periodically get your fireplace checked and serviced by a professional. As we have seen above, there can be a lot of reasons why excess smoke is entering your house. This can be prevented by periodic checks.
A safe and efficient fireplace will help prevent a lot of health related issues. If you are sensitive to burning wood smell and smoke or suffer from migraine, you must be extra vigilant to detect any malfunctioning and faulty fireplace.
In the meantime, while your fireplace is fixed, you have two options. Either you can put off the fireplace – This is not a feasible option if the temperatures are dipping below freezing point – or you can wear a mask on the nose to filter the carbon particles and the smell.
You can also use a smoke guard to limit the smoke entering. A smoke guard limits the opening in the fireplace and thus controls the draft and the flow of heat in the fireplace. If you’ve maintained your fireplace, and you’re still sensitive to the smell even though there is negligible smoke escaping into the room, a smoke guard can help in this case.
Alternatives to wooden fireplace
The most efficient and virtually smoke-free alternative to a wooden fireplace is an electric fireplace. It is very efficient in terms of energy used as a typical electric fireplace with maximum flame will cost as little as $0.18. (Source) . Moreover since it works on electricity, it does not produce any smoke and so there’s no chance of a headache or any other health issue.
Another alternative is to use a gas fireplace. Although it does not produce as much smoke when normally burnt, if there’s a fault in the system, it can give rise to toxic fumes. Hence the best alternative is to have an electric fireplace. It might require an investment, but it will be worth it.
What other health issues can arise because of fireplace smoke?
Other than headaches, prolonged exposure to fireplace smoke can cause eye irritation, respiratory tract infections, nausea, dullness and in extreme cases even cancer. You definitely wouldn’t want a faulty fireplace in your house.
How much does an electric fireplace cost?
Electric fireplaces can cost anywhere between $200 and $2000. The higher cost is for the design and more efficiency. Running an average 1500 Watt fireplace costs $0.18 per hour. With optimum usage during winter months, that comes to around $25 per year. Once you make the initial investment, the cost of running and the subsequent hazards are almost non-existent.
Can a fireplace come without a chimney or a vent?
You might think it’s a bad idea, but you do have ventless gas fireplaces. Of course, we aren’t talking about wood-burning fireplaces here.
Can wearing a mask reduce the effects of smoke?
Wearing a nose mask or covering the nose with a cloth can block the carbon particles and the burning smell and consequently prevent headaches and respiratory infections.