Surviving the Smoke

While it’s easy enough for most people to stay inside for a day or two of smoky air, with Calgary’s short summers staying inside for any longer is a challenge. Here’s what you should know before you decide whether to head outside.

In the short term the smoke isn’t that bad for most healthy people. Generally the short term effects of forest fire smoke are eye, throat and nose irritation which can lead to headaches and fatigue. These symptoms can be treated the same way that they normally are with things like eyedrops, drinking lots of fluid and using a neti pot. After the smoke clears these symptoms will also go away.

Everyone will be affected by the conditions differently. People with respiratory or cardiac conditions, children, pregnant women and seniors can develop serious health complications from the smoke. Adults without preexisting conditions can also have vastly different reactions to the smoke so just because someone says that they were fine outside doesn’t mean that you will be. During smoky conditions it is important to pay attention to how you feel, if you do go out or even if you are working out indoors.

Even if you don’t feel any of the effects of the smoke, everyone should still minimize their exposure to the smoke.  The long term effects of large amounts of forest fire smoke are not well known, as there previously weren’t as many long periods of smoke. A study on the firefighters involved in the massive Fort McMurray fire found that many firefighters were still suffering respiratory problems from the incident and could have problems for the rest of their life.

One of the best ways to minimize our exposure is to check the air quality and plan accordingly. While you can usually tell from the lack of visibility and smoky smell the air quality index’s risk guide 1-10+ rating provides a much more accurate measurement. It can easily be checked online or by downloading an app here. As well as giving you advice on whether you should reduce your outdoor activity ( for healthy people this is only at a 10), it will also give you projections for the next 18 hours so you can plan your outdoor activities for when air quality will be best.

While some may try and brave the outdoors with a mask, they likely aren’t very helpful and could even be detrimental. Masks make it harder to breathe so that you have to inhale more deeply and will wind up getting particles more deeply into your lungs. The thin medical masks will not filter the air particles and the N95 and N100 masks have to be fitted so that you aren’t still breathing a substantial amount of unfiltered air.

Some precautions should also be taken when you are indoors and driving, as the smoke will still enter your house and car. Turn on your air conditioner or air purifier if you have one and don’t burn candles or vacuum as they’ll also worsen the air quality. In the car close the windows and use the recirculated air option. Large public buildings usually have the best air filtration systems so if you are feeling the effects of the smoke check out our list of some of the best places to go for a walk and get air conditioning.

As for exercising outside, there are some studies which point to exercise outweighing the negative effects of air pollution. If it’s between exercising in the smoky air vs not exercising at all, exercising is probably better. If you aren’t experiencing symptoms, then most of your everyday activities like bike commuting, jogging or golfing will be fine until the air quality is at a very high risk. Most doctors do recommend that you aren’t pushing your physical limits in the poor air quality though, so don’t try going for a pb or an endurance run. Also if you do start experiencing symptoms, continuing to push through is just going to make the irritation worse and make it last longer, so you may as well stop. When you start feeling an uncomfortable level of irritation or when air quality is at a very high risk you need to start entertaining more indoor options. And while it’s hard to resist the mountains it is also important to keep in mind the low visibility the smoke creates if you are hiking, climbing or mountain biking.

Lastly, stay optimistic and remember the smoky skies will go away.

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