Wildfire smoke and asthma: How to protect yourself

The death of a 9-year-old boy in B.C. whose asthma was exacerbated by wildfire smoke is a terrifying example of how poor air quality can be dangerous for people with underlying respiratory and heart conditions, experts say. do.

As wildfire smoke pollutes the air, “asthma exacerbations certainly increase,” says Dr. Anne Hicks, clinical director of the University of Alberta Children’s Environmental Health Clinic.

In addition to asthma, studies show that wildfire smoke is associated with increased hospital visits in children and adults with other lung diseases such as viral infections, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and heart attacks and strokes. Hicks said it has been shown to be associated with He said.

Here are some things you can do to protect yourself and your children.

Use Air Quality Health Index

Environment Canada offers an Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) available online, where people can check pollution levels in their communities. You can find it at–e.html.

A rating of 1-3 is low risk, 4-6 is moderate risk, 7-10 is high risk, and 10 and above is very high risk.

However, many people with asthma and other chronic diseases, as well as infants, young children, pregnant women and the elderly, feel the effects of smoke and other air pollution at lower levels than healthy people.

“As an example, some of my asthma sufferers have worsened with an AQHI of 5, and I have sent letters to schools advising them to do indoor activities during outdoor breaks if they are at risk of causing asthma,” Hicks said.

People need to know what level of air pollution is affecting them and use that indicator to modify their activities accordingly, she said.

Stay indoors if air quality is poor

“Avoiding exposure is very important,” Hicks says. “Of course, when you look at air pollution and it’s happening every day, it becomes more and more difficult.”

Stay indoors with as many windows closed and use an air purifier, says Jeffrey Brooke, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Dalarna School of Public Health who specializes in air quality and pollution exposure.

What to look for in a home air purifier

A good air purifier should have a HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filter. Or, look for filters with a MERV (minimum efficiency reporting value) rating of at least 13, Brook says.

If you can’t afford to buy a quality air purifier unit, you can make your own, Brooke said. Watch him on YouTube for instructions, he suggested, but basically all you need is a box fan, a MERV 13 rated furnace filter, duct tape, and cardboard.

Be careful of heat stroke

If you’re in a home with closed windows and no air conditioning, be careful not to create another health hazard from overheating, says Hicks.

“Heat-related exposures, namely heat exhaustion and heat stroke, are also of concern, but they are also very serious and affect children more than adults,” she said.

Plus, the heat itself can trigger an asthma attack, she said.

If it’s hot inside your home and the air quality outside is poor, consider going to a local cooling center, shopping mall, or library.

Wear a mask if you have to go out

“Masks are a great tool for reducing harm when you need to go outside, such as for commuting to work or school,” Hicks said.

A surgical mask can filter out up to 20 percent of smoke and other particulate matter, and a well-fitting N95 mask can filter out up to 80 percent.

They come in kid sizes and come with ear hooks or elastics that wrap around your head, she said.

N95 masks offer the best protection from air pollution, but if a surgical mask is more comfortable, it’s still worth wearing, Brooke said.

First make sure your asthma is well controlled

Adults and children with asthma should always have both ‘control’ and ‘relieving’ medications available.

“Controller” medications are usually taken daily to reduce inflammation in the lungs and prevent asthma attacks. It usually contains an inhaled steroid.

“Relief” medications are inhaled medications taken by people suffering from an exacerbation of asthma, including an asthma attack. These are bronchodilators, which relax the lung muscles and widen the airways. Salbutamol (trade name Ventolin) is a common inhaler.

Hicks said people with asthma should always carry a pain reliever inhaler, much like people with severe allergies carry an EpiPen.

And no matter how well your asthma is usually under control, if you’re even slightly worried about yourself or your child, “make sure you go to the doctor,” she says.

“Many of our close-care families have children with exacerbations of asthma, including severe asthma,” Hicks said.

This report by the Canadian Press Agency was first published on July 20, 2023.

The Canadian Press’ health coverage is supported through a partnership with the Canadian Medical Association. CP is solely responsible for this content.

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