Healthy Living in the North

Wildfire smoke: many tobacco users finding it hard to breathe!

fire fighter walking by forrest fire

Tobacco users may find that wildfire smoke is causing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production.

I spoke with a friend who smokes cigarettes earlier this week and she said that she wasn’t able to leave the house over the weekend due to the forest fire smoke in the air.

Wildfire smoke is a mixture of particles and gas containing hundreds of chemicals, and tobacco users may find that wildfire smoke is causing severe symptoms such as shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production.

Is it a preview of what lies ahead?

If you smoke cigarettes or cigars, the toxins in tobacco smoke may be already causing severe lung irritation and the onset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Symptoms of COPD occur when the lungs and airways lose their elasticity, the walls between air sacs are destroyed, the airways thicken and become swollen and more mucous is produced.

During times of poor air quality such as wild fire smoke, some smokers find it very hard to breathe because they already have lung disease. They may not be aware that they have COPD. Although the fires will soon be extinguished, the progression of COPD continues if tobacco users don’t quit.

In the years ahead, smokers may experience shortness of breath, persistent coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and increased mucous production every day, even when the air quality is good.

The discomfort that my friend has been experiencing is helping her make a quit plan. She doesn’t want to feel like that again!

If you are concerned about your health or the health of others, there are resources to help quit using tobacco.

For help quitting smoking visit quitnow.ca or call 1-877-455-2233.

Access information and FREE nicotine patches, gum, lozenges or inhalers through the BC Smoking Cessation Program. Visit your pharmacy to access these products. You may be eligible for assistance to purchase smoking cessation medications.

Nancy Viney

About Nancy Viney

Nancy is a registered nurse working in Northern Health’s population health team. She often imagines a day when no one in northern British Columbia suffers from the harmful effects of tobacco. In her time off, she enjoys spending time with her family and friends, especially her two little grandchildren! Nancy also enjoys quilting, knitting, crocheting and many other home spun crafts.

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Breathe easier during smoky skies

Smoky skies above the city

Protect yourself during smoky skies bulletins. Photo by Barb Oke.

The province is currently inundated with numerous wildfires. Not only are fires a serious safety risk, but the smoke from these fires can be harmful to our health (especially to unborn children, children, the elderly, and those with chronic illness).

Here are some quick tips for breathing easier during a smoky skies bulletin:

  • Limit your exposure to wildfire smoke
    • Stay indoors and keep the air clean (windows/doors closed, no smoking, no burning fireplaces/candles/incense, no vacuuming, use a HEPA or EP indoor air cleaner if available).
    • Reduce the amount of time spent outdoors – avoid rigorous outdoor activities.
    • When in a vehicle, keep windows closed with air conditioning set to recirculate.
  • Visit a clean air shelter or a location that has a large volume of air that is air conditioned and filters the air (such as shopping malls, swimming pools, public libraries, etc.).
  • People with asthma or other chronic illness should activate their asthma or personal care plans. Some people may consider leaving the smoke filled area altogether.
  • Visit HealthLinkBC, call 8-1-1 (non-emergency), see your doctor, or call 9-1-1 (emergency) if you’re experiencing symptoms, ranging from eye, nose, and throat irritation to difficulties breathing and cardiovascular distress.
  • Be aware – visit bcairquality.ca for current air quality information.

Smoky conditions often happen during hot weather events, which means that it may also be important to stay cool:

  • Spend time in the coolest room in the home (e.g. basement).
  • Use an air conditioner or spend time at a location equipped with air conditioning and air filtration.
  • Take a cool bath or shower.

For information regarding wildfires, including information on wildfire status and prevention, visit the BC Wildfire Service. Report wildfires to *5555 (cell) or 1-800-663-5555.

For road updates, please contact www.drivebc.ca

For evacuation updates, please connect with Emergency Info BC: www.emergencyinfobc.gov.bc.ca

Northern Health supports the Ministry of Environment (MoE) with air quality advisories and bulletins when certain air pollutants become a concern. MoE issues Smoky Skies Bulletins when smoke can be expected in a local airshed. Unlike air quality advisories which are based on air concentrations measured at monitors, these Smoky Skies Bulletins are issued by a meteorologist who uses a number of different tools to determine that smoke is likely to enter a specified region. These bulletins can provide sooner warning to people that their health may be affected during the smoke event and may also be in affect longer than a typical advisory due to the unpredictable nature of wildfire smoke.

Paula Tait

About Paula Tait

Paula works in Prince George as a Health and Resource Development Technical Advisor, working collaboratively to assess and minimize health impacts related to industrial development. Born and raised in Terrace, she completed her schooling in Edmonton, and started her environmental health career in southeast Saskatchewan in 2005. She has been back in northern B.C. since 2010. Paula enjoys being creative, listening to music, and spending time with family and friends.

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