This year’s record-breaking wildfires in Canada not only continue to cause air quality issues throughout Canada and the United States, but with no end in sight, the ongoing smoke conditions leave parents asking exactly what the effects could be on their children.

Understanding when & how to protect yourself and your children from wildfire smoke air pollution can be challenging, especially when it comes to safeguarding the health of our children. So, we asked our health and safety expert, Dr. Chase Parsons, a pediatric hospitalist, what parents need to know about the wildfire smoke this summer, how to protect little ones from the harmful effects of smokey air, and just how bad that exposure is for their little bodies. Read on for his answers:  

Q: What should parents know about wildfire smoke in relation to their children’s health? 

A: Kids are more susceptible to the adverse effects of wildfire smoke as compared to adults.  There are a few reasons for this, but this is largely because children are still developing, they breathe a larger quantity of air compared to their size, and tend to be quite active.

Q: What numbers should parents pay attention to when it comes to air quality?

A: Parents should pay attention to the “Air Quality Index” or AQI.  The best place to find this is local news sources or the Weather app on most smartphones.  

When the AQI is higher than 150, outdoor activities should be avoided for most children.  Although, this threshold is lower (around 100) for children with existing breathing problems like asthma or if the air quality is persistently poor over a period of a few days.

Q: Is there anything parents can do to help protect their children when air quality numbers are bad or there is smoke in their area? 

A: Try to stay indoors. Consider taking your children to an indoor gym for an activity during times with high AQI.  When indoors at home or in your car, keep the windows up and place your air conditioner on recirculate mode.  If you have central air, consider a filter rated ‘MERV13’ or higher to remove harmful particles from your home’s air.  

Masks can be helpful when outside, but cloth masks will have little positive impact — a well-fitted N95 is best when your child must be outside and is most important if your child has other preexisting conditions, like asthma.

Q: What symptoms or side effects could wildfire smoke have on babies and children? When should parents be concerned? When should they seek medical care?

A: Small children can experience various side effects because of wildfire smoke and many symptoms are very similar to the symptoms of asthma.  These are things like coughing, difficulty breathing, chest tightness, or feeling lightheaded.  Your child may also complain of sensitive or red eyes or burning of the nose and throat.

If your child begins complaining of any of the above symptoms call your primary care doctor to see if they recommend scheduling an appointment.

Similar to other respiratory problems, take your child to the Emergency Department or call emergency services immediately if they experience any of these symptoms:
    •    Grunting to breathe
    •    Stops breathing
    •    Overly tired from working to breathe
    •    Severe depression of the skin around the ribs when breathing
    •    Blue-tinged skin

Q: Are there any long-term effects to wildfire smoke exposure?
A: There shouldn’t be any notable long-term effects to a small child after just one experience with breathing in wildfire smoke, but repeated exposure may affect your child’s heart and lung health in the long term.  Repeated exposure has been linked to chronic issues like childhood asthma, adult lung problems, or issues with one’s immune system. 

Be prepared for any emergency with our class, The Ultimate Safety Class: Illnesses, Injuries, Emergencies, and CPR, led by Dr. Parsons. Unlike the endless (and often confusing) medical information you might find online, this class is specifically designed for parents and caregivers and is an absolute must-have in your parenting tool belt.