by Davidicus Wong, M.D. September 14th, 2020
Most people don’t realize that Smokey the Bear’s real name was Smokey Bear, and that he was an orphaned bear cub rescued by firefighters in New Mexico 70 years ago. He has remained a symbol for forest fire prevention and wildlife preservation.
Today, smoky air – from wild fires in California, Oregon and Washington – have given all of us in BC another reason to stay indoors or wear a mask.
Wildfire smoke poses a health risk to everyone including those of us who are otherwise healthy. It can cause irritation of the throat, nose and eyes; coughing, and shortness of breath.
Those at highest risk are babies, young children, older adults, and those with chronic conditions such as respiratory or heart disease. For example, individuals with asthma, chronic bronchitis or emphysema will notice increased shortness of breath and wheezing.
While our air quality temporarily ranks among the worst in the world, we should all stay indoors as much as possible. Keep your windows closed, and if you are using an air conditioner, you should close the outside air intake and keep the filter clean to reduce bringing smoky air into your home. HEPA air purifiers can help remove small particles from the air but you are less likely to find them in our local stores.
Although cloth and surgical masks provide some protection against COVID-19 and other respiratory infections and you should wear them when you are unable to maintain physical distancing (2 meters) from others, facemasks only protect against larger particles in the air and not the fine particles of wildfire smoke.
N-95 facemasks do offer some protection as they filter smaller sized particles if fitted correctly. However, they are more expensive, hard to find and are really no substitute for staying indoors as much as possible.
Prior to the wildfires, we were encouraging more outdoor exercise during the pandemic. While our air quality remains so poor, even the fit should avoid strenuous outdoor exercise such as running.
The challenge of this unfortunate time of wildfires at the end of summer during a pandemic is to remain cool indoors but away from others. I anticipate the shopping malls may be more popular than our park trails over the next week. Remember to maintain your distance and hand hygiene.
If you or anyone you know is suffering from shortness of breath, a possible infection or any other medical condition, remember that your healthcare providers, including your family doctor and our emergency departments remain open.
The majority of family physicians have remained available for their patients throughout the pandemic. We have reduced in person clinic visits to what is essential; however, we’ve been connecting through telehealth – phone or video if appropriate.
Don’t hesitate to call your family doctor as you normally would for your usual medical concerns, including the management of chronic conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes. If you have a chronic lung condition such as asthma, call the clinic if you are running low on your inhalers.
Dr. Davidicus Wong is a family physician. His Healthwise Column appears regularly in the Burnaby Now, Royal City Record and Richmond News.