Calgary hospitals see increase in cough, smoke-related complaints as wildfires burn

An orange haze sits over Calgary on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, as wildfire smoke descends on southern Alberta.  (el_fotografo_viajero/Instagram - image credit)
An orange haze sits over Calgary on Tuesday, May 16, 2023, as wildfire smoke descends on southern Alberta. (el_fotografo_viajero/Instagram - image credit)

Calgary remains blanketed in smoke as wildfires continue in Alberta — something Alberta Health Services said has caused an increased number of emergency department visits.

This comes as intense wildfires continue to burn across the province, forcing thousands of Albertans from their homes and leaving communities across the province cloaked in smoke and as Calgary's Air Quality Health Index reaches "very high risk" status.

According to Alberta Wildfire's online dashboard, as of 2:30 p.m., 87 wildfires were burning inside Alberta's forest protection zones, and 23 are classified as out of control.

Emergency departments in the Calgary zone have seen a modest increase in patients with cough and respiratory issues due to smoke from wildfires, said Kerry Williamson, spokesperson with Alberta Health Services, said in an emailed statement to CBC.

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Williamson said on May 6, when the Alberta government declared a state of emergency due to wildfires, there were 105 patients who presented to Calgary zone hospital emergency departments with cough and smoke-related complaints.

Since then, that number has fluctuated from a low of 103 patients on May 10 to a high of 155 on May 15, Williamson said.

Poor air quality continues

As of 2 p.m. Saturday, Environment and Climate Change Canada's Air Quality Health Index for Calgary was at its highest level — a 10+ or "very high risk."

It is recommended that people with heart and lung conditions reduce or reschedule strenuous activities outdoors. Children and the elderly are also advised to take it easy.

The general population should consider reducing or rescheduling strenuous activities outdoors if they experience coughing and throat irritation.

On Saturday Environment Canada's air quality statement was still in place, saying smoke is causing poor air quality and reduced visibility at times.

A statement was also in place for the City of Edmonton, St. Albert and Sherwood Park.

"Wildfire smoke can be harmful to everyone's health even at low concentrations. Continue to take actions to protect your health and reduce exposure to smoke," the alert read.

Environment Canada said people with lung disease — such as asthma — or heart disease, older adults, children, pregnant people, and people who work outdoors are at higher risk of experiencing health effects caused by wildfire smoke.

Environment Canada says if you must spend time outdoors, 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 can help reduce your exposure to the fine particles in smoke.

"These fine particles generally pose the greatest risk to health. However, respirators do not reduce exposure to the gases in wildfire smoke. It is important to listen to your body and reduce or stop activities if you are experiencing symptoms."