With many parts of the country coping with wildfires, the air quality in some communities has deteriorated to dangerous levels, leaving many to wonder about the best way to get fresh air while the fires burn.

Should homeowners open the windows, or keep them shut? Will air masks help? Air filters?

Here’s what some experts have to say about how to handle poor air quality:

Will face masks help?

Many people buy face masks when the air is smoggy, but Dr. Sarah Henderson, senior environmental health scientist at the B.C. Centre for Disease Control, says they really don't do much.

“If you're wearing a surgical mask, they're not doing anything for you. They're not designed to filter out these fine particles,” she told CTV Vancouver.

The only type of mask designed for small smoke particles are N95 respirators, and even those must be properly fitted to the face to be effective. But the problem with the masks is they can quickly become highly uncomfortable and hard to breathe through.

“So, if you're having a hard time breathing in the first place, it's not necessarily the best idea. We do recommend them for people who have to work outdoors for long hours," Henderson says.

Will shutting windows keep out the smoke?

If the smoke is causing breathing problems, Henderson says shutting your windows is a start, but likely not enough.

“If you live in one of these older Vancouver homes with wood siding and not much insulation, they're pretty leaky, so the outdoor air comes indoors quite quickly. And certainly, having your windows open will just make that even quicker,” she said

The best idea is to use a home air cleaner with a HEPA filter, which can help remove some of the particles from the air.

What else can be done?

Dr. Aamir Bharmal, the medical health officer for Fraser Health Region, says it’s best to stay in large air conditioned spaces, such as shopping malls, community centres or libraries.

Are there any long term effects to breathing smoky air?

Henderson notes the question has not been well studied, simply because it’s difficult to do a long-term, well-controlled study on how smoke affects people over many years.

But the short answer, she says, is probably not.

"It's irritating in the short term, the chances of any long-term effects are very low," she said.

How big a problem is wildfire smoke?

In Canada, more than 8,000 wildfires occur each year, typically between April and October, according to data from the National Forestry Database.

The smoke from these fires can be carried by high level winds, affecting communities hundreds and even thousands of kilometres away.

The fires can produce a dense smoke that can be a major source of toxic air pollutants, filled with fine particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs and cause intense irritation.

Small children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with lung and heart conditions are usually most severely affected, but even those who are perfectly healthy can feel the effects after several days of unending smoke.

When will the air in Vancouver improve?

Metro Vancouver is still under its longest continuous air quality advisory, because of high concentrations of fine particulate matter and ground-level ozone.

Kyle Howe, an air quality analyst with Metro Vancouver, says the weather is expected to shift this weekend allowing some of the smoke to begin to dissipate.

“But I want to caution it’s not going to be an instantaneous change. This will likely be a gradual improvement over the course of the weekend,” he said.

With a report from CTV Vancouver’s Shannon Paterson