Safety Advisory Foundation for Education & Research

Forest Fires and Lung Health Fact Sheet

Is Forest Fire Smoke Taking your Breath Away?

The health effects from smoke can range from mild to severe and can even be life threatening

Forest fires are often a concern especially during dry, hot summers. The health effects from smoke can range from mild to severe and can even be life threatening. When forest fires are in effect we advise everyone to take measures to avoid the forest fire smoke as much as possible. Smoke can affect everyone’s health and breathing.

Some common symptoms from smoke exposure may include:

  • irritated eyes
  • runny nose
  • headaches
  • worsening of allergies

If you have lung disease such as Asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), you are especially at risk. Worsening Asthma or COPD symptoms that are not managed can lead to an Asthma emergency or a COPD lung attack. A COPD lung attack (COPD flare-up) can be just as deadly as a heart attack. Both a COPD lung attack and an Asthma emergency may result in the need for hospitalization and even death.

If you have Asthma or COPD, you may experience worsening of symptoms such as:

  • shortness of breath
  • cough
  • wheeze
  • chest tightness
  • increased mucous production

If Asthma or COPD symptoms worsen, refer to your COPD Action Plan / Asthma Action Plan or call your health care provider. These two diseases are common, but serious. As many as one in five Canadian children have asthma and it is the leading cause of hospital admissions for youth. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in our country and also results in more hospitalizations than other major chronic diseases such as heart failure, angina, and diabetes. Everyone should know the warning signs of an asthma emergency and a COPD lung attack which requires immediate medical attention.

Warning Signs of an Asthma Emergency:

  • Struggling for breath
  • Very rapid breathing
  • Fast activating (rescue) inhaler doesn’t help or you need it more than every 4 hours
  • Sucking in skin above breastbone and between ribs
  • Being really tired/ lethargic (because of the work of breathing)
  • Finding it hard to speak - you can’t finish a sentence
  • Nostrils flaring out
  • Pale, grey, sweating
  • Blue lips or nail beds
  • Warning Signs of a COPD Lung Attack:
  • Chest pain
  • Blue lips or fingers
  • Confusion
  • Drowsiness
  • Extreme shortness of breath

General recommendations for everyone to avoid forest fire smoke:

  • Remain indoors
  • Keep doors, windows and fireplace dampers shut
  • Use air conditioners on the re-circulation setting so outside air will not be moved inside
  • Avoid exercising outdoors
  • Take extra precaution with children, who are more susceptible to smoke because their breathing systems are still developing and they breathe in proportionally 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
  • Do not have campfires or use backyard fire pits. This adds to the poor air quality.
  • 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.
  • Pay attention to air quality reports on your local news channel or websites

This story was courtesy of BREATHE the lung association.