Breathing Emergencies: Wildfire Smoke and Poor Air Quality

Smoke filling the air of downtown Calgary from the 2019 Northern Alberta wildfiresWildfire season typically runs from early April to late October in Canada. As a result, communities across Canada are more likely to experience poor air quality due to wildfire smoke.

Exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to serious health emergencies, and it’s important to know the signs, symptoms, and how to respond.

Some people are at higher risk of health problems due to wildfire smoke exposure. This includes:
  • Seniors
  • Pregnant people
  • People who smoke
  • Infants and young children
  • People who work outdoors
  • People involved in strenuous outdoor exercise
  • People with an existing illness or chronic health conditions, such as:
    • ​Cancer
    • Diabetes
    • Lung or heart conditions
During heavy smoke conditions, everyone is at risk regardless of their age or health.

Symptoms resulting from wildfire smoke exposure can include:
  • Headaches
  • A mild cough
  • Production of phlegm
  • Sore and watery eyes
  • Nose, throat and sinus irritation
If you are experiencing symptoms, it’s important to limit your exposure by reducing or stopping outdoor activities and stay indoors. Limit outdoor activities and strenuous physical activities as much as possible. 

More serious but less common symptoms of wildfire smoke exposure can include:
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pains
  • Severe cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Stridor (noise on inspiration caused by laryngeal irritation)
  • Wheezing (including asthma attacks)
  • Heart palpitations (irregular heartbeat)
If you have any of these symptoms, talk to a health care provider or seek urgent medical attention.

Less commonly, exposure to wildfire smoke can lead to:
  • Stroke
  • Heart attack
  • Premature death
If you think you are having a medical emergency, call 911 or your local emergency number and seek immediate medical attention.

How to protect yourself from wildfire smoke and poor air quality
  • Limit outdoor activity as much as possible
  • Use a portable air purifier to filter the air in your home
  • Keep your windows closed
  • Ensure your furnace filter is clean and changed monthly during wildfire season 
  • Stay hydrated
  • If you have a chronic health condition, work with your healthcare provider to create a management plan for wildfire smoke conditions
  • Stay informed on local and regional air quality conditions 
To learn more about first aid for breathing emergencies, download the Red Cross First Aid App available on the App Store or Google Play and take a Red Cross First Aid Course. For more information on wildfire smoke and air quality health index, visit Environment and Climate Change Canada.

Visit the Government of Canada’s Interactive Map through the Canadian Wildland Fire Information System to stay up to date on local wildfire alerts.

Related stories: 
Heatwave warning: What you need to know about heat-related emergencies

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