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How to breathe easy during wildfire season when pregnant

Wildfire smoke from forest fires burning across the province can cause health problems, especially among pregnant people.
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​“Pregnant women with asthma should take extra precaution and to treat breathing difficulties early on,” says Dr. Wee-Shian Chan, head of medicine at BC Women’s Hospital + Health Centre. “Most inhaled medications used to manage asthma are safe for use in pregnancy, but when in doubt please talk to your doctor.”

Wildfire pollutants include greenhouse gases: carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide; fine and course particulate matter. Particulate matter is a combination of dust, soil dust, pollens, molds, ashes and soot. Fine particles less than 10 micrometres (width of a cotton fibre) have a greater risk of impacting health, as they can enter deep into the lungs and cause short and long term health problems such as heart disease and worsening of lung diseases.

What to do if there is poor air quality warning
Minimize exposure by staying indoors as much as possible, and keep windows and doors closed.
Purchase a portable air cleaner that uses HEPA filtration certified by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers.
Visit public spaces such as community centres, libraries and shopping malls, which tend to have cleaner, cooler indoor air.
Avoid physical activities outdoors, the harder you breathe, the more smoke you inhale. 
Drink plenty of water to keep hydrated.
If you need to be outdoors, consider a face mask. Not all masks are the same; it must be a N95 particulate respirator that is fitted properly to prevent particulate inhalation. A three-layer cloth or disposable mask provides moderate protection compared with an N95 respirator. For more information on masks, see the BC Centre for Disease Control website.

For pregnant people, exposure to short and medium term air pollution can result in decreased birth weight and possible risk of fetal malformations. Exposure to wildfires that require evacuation and relocation can also result in significant post-traumatic stress disorders. 

Physical signs of stress

Rapid heartbeat
Stiff neck and/or tight shoulders
Rapid breathing
Sweating and sweaty palms
Upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea

Behavioural or mood changes

Become irritable and intolerant of even minor disturbances
Feel irritated or frustrated, and unreasonable anger
Feeling of being overwhelmed
Decreased ability to focus and a feeling of being unable to think clearly
Changes in appetite – either not eating or eating more

Pregnancy is a stressful time and to experience a traumatic event such as a wildfire near your home can have major impacts to mental health. During the pandemic, the desire to be outdoors may compound stress on days with poor air quality. If you are experiencing signs of stress and anxiety, talk to your health-care provider.

For more resources on BC wildfires, visit the BC Centre for Disease Control.

Perinatal Services BC; pregnancy; wildfires; BC Women's Hospital + Health Centre



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