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Forest Fires and Lung Health

Forest fires are often a concern in Canada, especially during dry, hot summers. People all over Canada may be affected by the smoke from forest fires. The Canadian Lung Association urges those with lung disease such as asthma and COPD to monitor their breathing and avoid exposure to smoke. If breathing problems develop, refer to your action plan or call your health-care provider.

What type of health effects can be caused by forest fire smoke?

For someone without lung problems, wood smoke can:

  • irritate eyes, lungs, throat and sinuses
  • increase the risk of heart attacks
  • trigger headaches and allergies
  • reduce lung function, especially in children

For someone with lung disease, wood smoke can cause all of the above sooner and it can:

  • trigger asthma attacks
  • worsen COPD
  • worsen pneumonia

** Symptoms of worsening lung problems include increased cough, chest discomfort, wheeze and shortness of breath.

If you or someone you love experiences an asthma emergency or a COPD lung attack, call 911 and go to the nearest emergency department right away.  Do not drive yourself.  Take your fast acting (rescue) inhaler as necessary on your way to the hospital.

What can you do to prevent problems when there is wood smoke in the air?

General recommendations for everyone to avoid forest fire smoke:

  • Remain indoors.
  • Keep doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut.
  • Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved inside.
  • Refrain from exercising outdoors.
  • Take extra precaution with children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their breathing systems are still developing and they breathe in more air (and therefore more smoke) than adults.
  • Older adults are more likely to have heart or lung disease, which can make them more susceptible to smoke. Extra precaution should also be taken during forest fire season.
  • Keep your windows and vents closed while driving. Again, only use air conditioning in the “recirculate” setting.
  • Pay attention to air quality reports on the local news channel or these websites:

Remember: dust masks will not protect your lungs from the fine particles in smoke.

If you have lung disease, you should:

  • Always keep your lung disease well-managed and under good control before forest fires can cause a problem.
  • Follow your action plan developed with your doctor. If you don’t have a written asthma action plan, print one and ask your doctor to fill it in.
  • Use your rescue medication if you need it.
  • Talk to your doctor ahead of the forest fire season to know what to do before there is a problem.
  • People using home oxygen should not make any changes to the oxygen – call your doctor if you have questions or concerns.
  • If breathing symptoms are not relieved by the usual medicines, seek medical attention. Symptoms to watch for include: increased wheeze, cough, shortness of breath, and chest heaviness.
  • Make sure your medications are up-to-date and filled.  Everyone with Asthma or COPD should have a fast acting (rescue) inhaler with them at all times.  Learn how to take your inhaler using the best techniques.

If you live in an area that you might need to evacuate due to forest fires or wild fires, be prepared. Pack an emergency kit which includes extra medications. Learn more from the Government of Canada on how to prepare for a wildfire.

For more information please call our toll-free number 1-866-717-2673 to speak with one of our certified respiratory educators: