Together for Health: Protecting your health during wildfire season

May 14, 2024

Wildfire season is once again off to an early and concerning start in BC. As this increasingly becomes the norm, it’s important that British Columbians – and individuals across Canada – know how to keep themselves healthy amidst smokey skies.

Who’s at risk

With wildfire smoke comes serious potential health consequences for everyone, but especially those most vulnerable including infants and small children, seniors, pregnant women, and individuals with pre-existing chronic conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart disease, and diabetes.

Health effects from wildfire smoke

Wildfire smoke is comprised of gases as well as fine particles which carry a great risk to our health. When inhaled, these particles travel into our lungs and can cause irritation and inflammation. Most symptoms are relatively mild and don’t require medical attention: sore throat, eye irritation, runny nose, and mild cough are some of the most common, among others. However, if you experience any of the following more severe symptoms, contact a health care professional immediately:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Severe cough

  • Dizziness

  • Chest pain

  • Heart palpitations

Keeping yourself healthy from wildfire smoke

During smoky times, it’s important to limit your exposure. Here are some tips to help you do that:

  • Check the Air Quality Health Index (AQHI)(link is external) and only go outside when it’s safe

  • If you must go outside, use a well-fitted respirator or three-layer cloth or disposable mask

  • Use a portable HEPA air purifier and keep your windows closed

  • If you have a forced air heating/cooling system in your home, change the filter and set the fan to run continuously

  • When driving in your car, use AC when possible and keep the ventilation set to recirculate

  • Stay hydrated to reduce inflammation

  • Reduce your activity level to reduce the amount of smoke you inhale

Preventative measures you can take to reduce smoke exposure

There are also preventative measures you can take either before the smoke arrives or when the air clears up such as:

  • Stocking up on medications if you have a respitory condition to ensure you have enough supply on hand for when the smoke arrives

  • Considering purchasing a portable air cleaner with a HEPA air filter to reduce smoke particles indoors

  • Learning about the different tools you can use to monitor current air quality and wildfire smoke forecasts

As climate change escalates, and droughts and above-normal temperatures become more common, Canadians can expect wildfire seasons to continue to increase in severity resulting in more frequent smoky skies.

For more information on wildfire smoke and the health implications, visit the BCCDC’s dedicated Wildfire Smoke webpage or the BC Government’s Air quality advisories.

If you are a physician in a community at high risk of wildfires, you can find a list of supports and resources, as well as information on evacuation alerts and keeping your patients healthy, in our news article.