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Tips for wildfire smoke and children

Smoke from wildfires can trigger serious health issues for children, especially if they have chronic respiratory or heart conditions.
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BC Children’s Hospital emergency physician Ran Goldman has treated children with acute asthma episodes and breathing problems in past summers as the brown haze of wildfire smoke drifted across the province. 

“The smoke is dense and it’s a change in the air that children aren’t used to dealing with,” Goldman says. “Depending on how long children are exposed to it, passive smoke inhalation rarely leaves any long-term effects. However, if children are close to the fire itself, it can be dangerous and leave a longer mark. Different bodies process the change in different ways.” 

Children are more susceptible to wildfire smoke for a variety of reasons. They have smaller lungs than adults and breathe more quickly. In very young children, their lungs are still developing and may be sensitive. Children are also generally more active than adults, especially outdoors.

Action to take

Goldman says it’s important to keep kids hydrated during smoky times because they lose fluids if they breathe more quickly. If children get red or itchy eyes, rinse out the eyes with water.

Goldman has also provided advice remotely for doctors in various communities around B.C. 

“Even when the air may look clear, particulate matter can still make conditions like asthma worse, or trigger an acute attack,” he says.

Goldman also recommends parents or caregivers of children with chronic respiratory and heart issues to stay current with the child’s medications, make sure they have enough supply for days ahead, and know which medication to use as well as when to use it.

“Parents may need to use a rescue inhaler or a maintenance inhaler at different times for children with asthma,” he says. 

Air purifiers can reduce small particle concentrations indoors by 40 to 80 per cent. Goldman recommends following BC’s Air Quality Health Index (AQHI) when deciding whether to keep children indoors. 

AQHI health risk levels and the general recommendations for children:

Low – AQHI Index level 1-3: No changes necessary.

Moderate - AQHI Index level 4 to 6: Consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if experiencing a reaction to wildfire smoke. 

High - AQHI Index level 7 to 10: Reduce or reschedule outdoor activities and take it easy. 

Very High – AQHI Index level above 10: Strenuous activities outside and physical exertion should be avoided.

When the smoke is thick and parents bring their children inside, both parents and children may need to change their clothing to reduce their exposure to the particulate matter.

Smoke vs. pollution

Goldman hesitates to accept the common comparisons of B.C. wildfire smoke to industrial or vehicle pollution seen in other cities. He says smoke pollution is more dense and children in B.C. haven’t grown accustomed to the high level of particulate matter so their reactions can be more severe. 

Parents and caregivers should talk to their doctor if a child exhibits:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Severe cough
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Heart palpitations

Parents and caregivers should seek emergency care if they notice:

  • A child has difficulty breathing
  • Any change in their child’s level of consciousness

BC Children's Hospital; BC wildfires; Health alert; Kids; wildfires
Children's Health
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