Wildfire smoke and your health

Wildfire season typically runs from early April to late October. As wildfire burns through forests and grasslands, it produces dense smoke that can be a major source of toxic air pollutants. This pollution contains fine particles (that are not visible to the human eye) that penetrate deep into our lungs and bloodstream, sometimes  leading to serious health effects. Those at greater risk of these effects are:

During heavy smoke conditions, all Canadians are at risk regardless of their age or health.

Symptoms of smoke exposure

Milder and more common symptoms of smoke exposure include:

  • sore and watery eyes
  • runny nose and sinus irritation
  • scratchy throat and mild coughing
  • headache

The following symptoms are less common, but are more serious:

  • breathing difficulties, including asthma attacks
  • severe cough
  • dizziness
  • chest pains
  • heart palpitations
  • heart attacks

If you experience any of these more severe symptoms, talk to a health professional, or seek urgent medical attention. If you think you could be having a heart attack, a stroke or another medical emergency, dial 911 and seek immediate medical assistance.

Protect your health during a wildfire

  • Limit outdoor activity and strenuous physical activities as much as possible. If you have difficulty breathing, reduce your activities or stop altogether. During prolonged smoke exposure, it’s important to stay active when you can. You may be able to exercise indoors in a facility with air conditioning and filtered air. Pay attention to the AQHI or other indicators of smoke levels in your community and watch for opportunities to get outside and be active if conditions improve.
  • Drink lots of water to help your body cope with the smoke.
  • At home
    • keep windows and doors closed  as long as the temperature is comfortable.
    • use a clean, good quality air  filter (such as HEPA)  in your ventilation system. Also, use recirculation settings on your ventilation system to prevent smoke from entering your home.
    • use a portable air cleaner that uses HEPA filtration to remove smoke from your home.
    • avoid vacuuming and burning candles, incense or other materials. 
    • learn more tips on improving indoor air quality.
  • Take a break from the smoke by visiting a library, community or shopping centre, etc. That could provide a cooler, cleaner environment.
  • Keep vehicle windows closed and set the ventilation system to recirculate.
  • Check in on others who are in your care or live nearby who may be more vulnerable to smoke.
  • If possible, leave the area: If you are vulnerable to the health effects of wildfire smoke and smoke levels in your community are high, consider temporarily re-locating to an area with cleaner air.
  • It is important to take care of your mental health during a wildfire smoke event. It’s not unusual to feel anxious, stressed out, sad or isolated during a smoke event. Eating well, getting enough sleep, exercising indoors and spending time with friends can help. However, anyone who is having trouble coping with symptoms of stress, anxiety or depression should seek help from a health professional. Remember: a smoke event may last a long time, but it will eventually end. Sharing positive outlooks and attitudes will help you get through it.
  • Consult your physician or local health authority for additional advice. Most provinces and territories also offer health advice through a telephone hotline.

Staying cool during a smoke and heat event

In Canada, most wildfires burn during the summer and the most intense fires often occur when the weather is the hottest. This means that people may at times be exposed to both smoke and extreme heat, both of which may be harmful to health.

If you do not have air conditioning at home and it is hot outside, it may not be safe to keep doors and windows closed. If you are vulnerable to the health effects of smoke and/or heat and you cannot keep your home cool and relatively smoke-free, try to spend time at a facility in your community that offers cleaner, cooler air. Consider visiting:

  • Public libraries
  • Shopping centres
  • Community centres

If you cannot spend time in cooler and cleaner air, try these three protective measures:

  • Drink lots of water, even if you do not feel thirsty.
  • Stay out of the sun, take cool showers, spray yourself with a water bottle, or wear a wet t-shirt to cool your body.
  • Take it easy, and limit exercise and exertion that makes you sweat or breathe hard.
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