Multiple wildfires burning in Northern Alberta have cast ash and other irritants into the air, which may cause breathing problems for children, Elders and those with underlying respiratory problems. This article provides insight and advice on wildfire smoke inhalation.
What makes wildfire smoke a health hazard?
Wildfire smoke is different than a smoke you would inhale from a close fire because of the particulate matter in the smoke. We see most health effects in patients with a predisposition to respiratory problems, in the young and in the elderly.
Of those that have respiratory problems, patients with asthma are most common, and can have more symptoms if exposed to the particulate matter. In this case, they need to use their rescue medications more frequently.
What is the main concern for patients with respiratory problems?
Most of the time we worry about prolonged asthma attacks. During wildfires, these attacks can last longer than they normally would. If someone is having an asthma attack due to high smoke exposure from the outdoors, we recommend that they try to stay indoors. If they must go outdoors, they should use their rescue medications prior to going outside. If outdoors, they should try to limit the amount of vigorous activity.
What are some symptoms individuals can look for?
- Decreased activity level
- Increased coughing
- Wheezing and/or audible breathing sounds
- Change in color or pallor of skin
- Easily fatigued
- Breathing hard
To see if a child is having problems breathing, observe if they are breathing fast; in smaller children, look for their ribs sucking in (called retraction).
What are the first steps for any individual to take -whether or not they have a respiratory issue?
Individuals with respiratory conditions (such as COPD and asthma), and individuals with existing cardiovascular conditions (such as angina, previous heart attack and congestive heart failure), may notice worsening of symptoms, due to the poor air quality conditions. These individuals should monitor for worsening of symptoms and take the precautions routinely recommended by their physicians if a worsening of symtoms occurs.
With the dense smoke, anyone can start coughing and sheezing and have problems, whether or not they have an underlying respiratory problem.
- If symptoms persist, seek medical opinion. In that case, the child may need an inhaler or another medication to help them during the exposure. Bring the child indoors and have him/her rest until symptoms subside.
- Parents should also seek medical attention if they notice their children using their rescue medications more often than normal (a good gauge is if they are using the medications as frequently as every four hours).
- If the smoke is especially thick outside and/or there's a lot of particulate matter in the air, and you've been outside, change your clothes once you come indorrs. Kids will want to be close to you and could inhale the matter that comes off your clothes, especially if you work outdoors.
- If children get red or itchy eyes-sometimes they can get soot in their eyes -rinse out the eyes just with water. With the heat, drink many fluids.