Protecting your health from wildfire smoke

July 6, 2021

Dry and hot conditions from BC’s recent record-breaking heat wave have left the province vulnerable to extreme wildfire danger. With more than 200 active fires, a higher than normal number for this early in the season, several communities are currently engulfed in wildfire smoke with many more on high alert. Environment Canada has issued special air quality statements in 20 locations around the province, all due to wildfire smoke, and are advising those in affected areas to take precautions to limit their exposure and protect their health.


Who’s at risk

While wildfire smoke can affect everyone, those most vulnerable include 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. It’s recommended that high risk groups significantly reduce their exposure to smoke.

Health effects from wildfire smoke

Wildfire smoke is made up 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 the most common, among others. However, some individuals may experience more severe symptoms and should contact a health care professional immediately:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe cough
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations

Preventative measures to take before the smoke arrives

Since the timing of wildfire smoke is mostly unpredictable, it’s recommended that the following measures be taken before the smoke arrives:

  • Stock up on medications, especially for respiratory conditions like asthma, to ensure you have enough supplies on hand for when the smoke arrives
  • Consider purchasing a portable air cleaner with a HEPA air filter to reduce smoke particles indoors
  • Learn about the different tools you can use to monitor current air quality and wildfire smoke forecasts

Tips to reduce your smoke exposure

During the smoky times, it’s important to limit your exposure. Here are some tips to reduce your exposure and seek cleaner air:

  • Only go outdoors when absolutely necessary
  • Use a portable HEPA air cleaner 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
  • Reduce your activity level to reduce the amount of smoke you inhale
  • Stay hydrated to reduce inflammation
  • When going outdoors, use a well-fitted respirator or three-layer cloth or disposable mask
  • When driving in your car, use AC when possible and keep the ventilation set to recirculate

It’s also important to note that health symptoms of wildfire smoke can be similar to those associated with COVID-19. If you’re unsure about your symptoms, check the COVID-19 self-assessment tool or call 811.

For more information on wildfire smoke and the health implications, visit the BCCDC’s dedicated Wildfire Smoke webpage or the BC Government’s Smoky Skies Bulletin.

For doctors whose practices are in areas at risk of wildfires, visit our Emergency Preparedness Resources for Physicians webpage for information on how to prepare for wildfires as well as how to continue delivering care to patients.