September 20th, 2021

Respiratory therapist says wildfire smoke calls for extra precautions for those with health conditions


By Al Beeber on July 24, 2021.

Herald photo by Al Beeber - Traffic crosses Whoop-Up Drive earlier this week as smoke settles over the river valley.

LETHBRIDGE HERALDabeeber@lethbridgeherald.com

Avoid the outdoors as much as possible and monitor symptoms. That’s the advice from an Asthma Canada respiratory therapist for people affected by smoke from the B.C. wildfires.
Nova Scotia-based Tracy Cushing said Friday disposable surgical masks like those worn during the COVID pandemic and even N95 masks, unless the latter are properly fitted, may not help much to protect people from the fine particulates in smoke.
People suffering from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) could have their diseases triggered by the wildfire smoke, Cushing said.
People also need to keep a regular watch on the Air Quality Health Index which will range from one to 10 with 10 being the worst. Lethbridge area has reached that level on several occasions in recent weeks due to smoke. On Friday, the AQHI was listed at four which is considered a moderate risk. At this level, at-risk populations are urged to curtail or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities.
When outside, “you can try to avoid things on days when it seems particularly bad which I guess is probably a relative term,” she said.
“Any kind of wildfire smoke is toxic and especially if there were buildings involved at some point for sure. So any time people are breathing in smoke, it potentially or most likely causes inflammation. So with asthma, inflammation is what happens. It’s an inflammatory disease, so any time breathing in any kind of particulate matter is often a trigger to increasing that inflammation and of course then making asthma symptoms worse,” said Cushing.
COPD sufferers also tend to have other health issues such as diabetes and heart disease, which is “a bad set of circumstances,” said Cushing.
“Any time you’re adding that inflammatory response that’s going to be a challenge and I think some people end up with having more heart type effects, increased heart rate, maybe heart attack in extreme circumstances,” Cushing said.
As for masks, “it’s true for asthma, COPD, basically any respiratory illness breathing in anything toxic and with the smoke particle size, masks don’t work as well. Some can work better than others but they’re not perfect because they’re a tiny, tiny size. So the masks we’re wearing for COVID typically they’re not going to really do anything,” she said.
Cushing recommends people with air conditioning in their homes or filtration systems make sure they have the best filters they can get, specifically HEPA filters, and ensure air is recirculating rather than drawing in outside air. She says this is also true for vehicles.
Closing fireplace vents can also keep smoke out of homes, she said.
Asthma and COPD sufferers also need to monitor their symptoms and stay in control of their diseases, she said. Cushing also recommends having an emergency plan, like a person would in case of flooding, making sure there is enough medication on hand to get through difficult situations.
“They need to anticipate the worst case scenario,” she added.
“Even short exposures can really trigger, especially someone with asthma. And if the asthma is poorly controlled to begin with, it’s hard to really avoid a more aggressive response in your body when you’re starting at a lower level of lung function, Cushing said.
Cushing said asthmas sufferers need to take their disease seriously.
“It’s monitoring your control and paying attention to your symptoms on a daily basis. If you are having daily symptoms, it’s contacting your primary care provider to make sure that you’re in good control. Do changes need to be made to your current plan to make sure you’re in better control? Even for people who are well controlled in their symptoms, do they have a plan if their symptoms go out of control?”

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