With wildfires blazing across parts of Alberta, Saskatchewan and British Columbia, many Canadians may be experiencing hazy air in their communities. Here’s a look at the potential health effects related to exposure:

What is the risk of smoky air?

Wood smoke contains gases and small particulates that can be breathed into the lungs, causing irritation.

The fine particles in smoke-filled air can also make existing lung- or heart-related symptoms worse. In those with heart conditions, carbon monoxide in smoke can reduce the blood's ability to supply necessary oxygen and can even trigger heart attacks.

Who is most at risk?

People with respiratory conditions -- such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (chronic bronchitis and emphysema), or lung cancer -- are most at risk.

Those with existing heart conditions such as angina, previous heart attack, heart failure or heart-rhythm problems (arrhythmia or irregular heartbeat) are also sensitive to air pollution.

People with diabetes are also at risk because they are more likely to have heart disease.

What about kids?

Babies and young children are vulnerable to forest-fire smoke because they tend to inhale more often, in comparison to adults. The elderly are also at risk due to generally weaker lungs, heart and immune systems.

What effects can the smoke cause?

People who are otherwise healthy may notice:

  • irritated eyes
  • increased mucous production in the nose or throat
  • coughing and wheezing

When should I be worried?

If you experience any of the following, contact your health-care provider, as you may have an undiagnosed breathing condition: 

  • difficulty in breathing
  • chest pain or discomfort
  • sudden onset of cough or irritation of airways

If you or someone you know experiences an asthma attack or a COPD lung attack, call 911 and go to the nearest emergency department right away. The Lung Association advises you take a fast-acting (rescue) inhaler, as necessary, on to way to hospital and that you do not drive yourself.

What is the best advicefor dealing with hazy air?

Outdoor sports and exercise are discouraged as heavier breathing will allow more air pollution to enter the lungs.

Those with chronic medical conditions, such as those listed above, should not engage in strenuous exercise of any form until the air quality advisory is lifted.

It is best to stay indoors, preferably in air-conditioned spaces, with doors and windows closed, to reduce fine particulate exposure. Use air conditioners on the recirculation setting so outside air will not be moved inside. This goes for vehicles as well.