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How to take care of yourself and your pets in smoky conditions

A thick blanket of wildfire smoke covering Ottawa has caused major issues for air quality.

Environment Canada's air quality health index (AQHI) had Ottawa at a 9 out of 10 Tuesday afternoon, but it was at the 10+ "very high risk" level earlier in the day. The weather forecast for Wednesday includes widespread smoke, meaning the problem won't be going away soon.

Ottawa's medical officer of health Dr. Vera Etches tells Newstalk 580 CFRA's Ottawa Now with Kristy Cameron that there has been an increase in emergency visits for respiratory issues.

"These small particles affect everyone," she said of the smoke. "If you're very fit, you're probably not at high risk for the more serious things like heart attack or stroke, but you still increase your exposure when you do strenuous activity."

Here are some tips for taking care of yourself when conditions are so smoky:

  • Check the AQHI every day to find out regional air quality readings and forecasts for Ottawa.
  • Avoid strenuous outdoor work, exercise, and playtime.
  • Stay indoors in a cool, well-ventilated place and plan indoor activities for children.
  • Keep windows and doors closed, and use air conditioning, if required.
  • Properly seal windows and doors with weather stripping.
  • Set your ventilation system to recirculate when the outdoor air is poor and bring in fresh air when the outdoor air has improved.
  • Install a high-quality high-efficiency particulate air filter.

"For the general population, reducing strenuous activities reduces the amount of smoke and tiny particles that you inhale into your lungs," Etches said.

If you must be outside:

  • Try to schedule your activities early in the morning when pollution levels are lowest.
  • Wear a well-fitted respirator type mask (such as a NIOSH certified N95 or equivalent respirator) that does not allow air to pass through small openings between the mask and face.

"The particles are so tiny that your basic medical mask will not keep the smoke out of your lungs," Etches said.

Etches says wildfire smoke can cause symptoms like headaches, irritated eyes, and cough.

In more serious cases, symptoms can included tightness or pain in the chest, wheezing, dizziness, heart palpitations or shortness of breath. If you experience these symptoms, seek medical attention.


Smoke also affects animals.

Dr. Shelley Hutchings, the chief veterinarian at the Ottawa Humane Society, says the poor air quality can cause symptoms similar to those in humans.

"The smoke in the air can irritate a pet's eyes and their respiratory tracts," she says. "Older pets, pets with heart and lung conditions, and short-nosed dogs like pugs and bulldogs might be more affected by the smoke in the air."

Signs to watch for include coughing or gagging, nasal discharge and red or watery eyes. More concerning symptoms include difficulty breathing, which could manifest as open-mouth breathing, more noise with breathing or fast breathing. More severe symptoms include fatigue, weakness, stumbling, and decreased appetite.

Hutchings is encouraging pet owners to limit their pets' time outdoors when the air quality is poor.

"We certainly want dog-owners to avoid high-intensity outdoor activities such as the dog park or jogging. Very short leash walks and very quick trips outside are preferable until the air quality improves."

Hutchings recommends keeping cats indoors and to avoid using 'catios'.

Pet birds are especially susceptible to smoke, Hutchings says.

"The best thing you can do for now is keep your pets indoors and keep your windows and door shut as much as possible," she says. "If you have concerns, it's always best to place a call and check in with your vet.

"We're encouraging indoor activities for pets as much as possible. Food puzzles and brain games for dogs, especially, can help keep them entertained with less outdoor time." Top Stories

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