Health

Wildfire health hazards and how to mitigate them

The smoke from wildfires can affect our health, ranging from eye irritations to chest pain and shortness of breath in people with heart or lung disease. Here are some suggestions from health officials to prevent and manage the risk.

What to do when you're concerned about smoke

The Northern Lights Health Facility in Fort McMurray can be seen in this photo as flames shoot into the sky. People are generally advised to seek medical care if they experience chest tightness, chest pain, shortness of breath or severe fatigue after smoke exposure from wildfires. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The smoke from wildfires can affect our health, ranging from eye irritations to chest pain and shortness of breath in people with heart or lung disease. Here are some suggestions from health officials to prevent and manage the risk. 

Whenever wood burns, gases and fine particles are produced.

The unhealthiest part of wildfire smoke come from the small particles, or particulates, some no larger than one-third the diameter of a human hair. It's these fine particles that make it harder to breathe, trigger a cough and aggravate heart and lung disease.

How smoke affects your health depends on factors such as how long you've been exposed, your age, current health state and the type of smoke. Healthy people are usually not at major risk from smoke, but it's still best to avoid breathing it, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises.

Young children, the elderly and those with asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema and congestive heart failure are more sensitive to the harmful effects of smoke exposure, the Lung Association says.

Carbon monoxide and air pollutants are another consideration.

Aside from leaving the area when possible, officials generally recommend those concerned about smoke to:

  • Pay attention to local air quality reports and precautions.
  • Limit outdoor activity, especially if it makes you tired or short of breath.
  • Stay inside with windows and doors closed. If you have an air conditioner, set it to re-circulate to help filter the air and keep you cool. Keep the filter clean.
  • Avoid burning candles, fireplaces or gas stoves that increase indoor air pollution.
  • Prevent wildfires by preparing, building and extinguishing campfires properly.
  • Don't rely on dust masks alone. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says an N95 mask, properly worn, will offer some protection.

People with heart or lung conditions, including asthma, should monitor their condition, take prescribed medications and keep a week's supply on hand.

If you experience chest tightness, chest pain, shortness of breath or severe fatigue, seek medical care

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