Cities and towns around Australia have been blanketed in smoke from enormous bushfires this summer. It’s been one of the worst bushfire seasons on record, and fires have devastated communities. 

Even if you haven’t been directly impacted, the threat of nearby bushfires, the lives lost and the distressing images are terrible enough. 

If you have underlying health conditions – and even if you’re perfectly healthy – there’s the added worry about the effects of bushfire smoke on your health.

Why air quality matters

Air quality in some parts of Australia, particularly the eastern states, has been terrible in the past few months. 

The air quality index (AQI) measures air pollutants at dozens of spots across Australia, and is rated “hazardous” when it’s higher than 200. 

It’s not only surpassed safe levels in the past few months, it’s been well over “hazardous” many times. Not surprisingly, calls to triple-zero have spiked due to respiratory issues.If you’re in an area affected by bushfire smoke, check the AQI in your area.

The problem with bushfire smoke

Smoke from bushfires contains fine particles that are smaller than 2.5 microns which can travel deep into the lungs, causing inflammation. These particles can even cross from the lungs into the bloodstream and cause inflammation in the heart. 

Bushfire smoke can also carry toxic gases such as carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, acrolein and hydrogen cyanide.

Exposure to air pollution over days or weeks increases the risk of illness, says the Australian Government’s Acting Chief Medical Officer Paul Kelly.

The good news is that the risk drops when the smoke clears. 

“Evidence shows the risk of illness declines when air pollution levels fall, even after very long periods of exposure,” Professor Kelly says.

Who is most at risk?

If you’re among these groups, you might be at greater risk, according to NSW Health:

  • People with heart disease, or lung diseases like asthma and emphysema
  • Older adults, because they are more likely to have heart or lung disease
  • Children, because they have developing airways and breathe more air relative to their body weight
  • Pregnant women, because they may be more sensitive to the effects of smoke
Find out the 4 groups of people most at risk of bushfire smoke. Click To Tweet

How to reduce your exposure

There are simple precautions you can take to avoid being exposed to smoke, says Dr Paul Dugdale, MyHealthTest’s Medical Advisor.

For people in good general health, smoke from the bushfires should not cause them any undue health problems if they take simple precautions.
Dr Dugdale suggests taking the following precautions: 

Minimise your exposure to heavy smoke: stay indoors as much as possible, keeping the house closed to minimise smoke entry

Avoid heavy exercise, so that you do not take the smoke deep into your lungs with the fast and deep breathing caused by the exercise

If you need to do heavy work outside in very smoky conditions, consider using a P2 dust mask. Make sure it is fitted well, and go inside for a break every hour.

For people with pre-existing health problems, Dr Dugdale says to continue to follow your doctor’s advice. 

Keep taking your medications. If you have a health plan such as an asthma action plan, keep following this.

See your doctor if you are experiencing health problems. If it is an emergency, call 000.

What to do if you have respiratory conditions

If you have a respiratory condition such as asthma, bushfire smoke can make your symptoms worse, so try to stay indoors as much as possible and don’t exercise outside. 

Make sure you continue taking your medication as directed by your doctor, and keep it nearby. Air purifiers with a HEPA filter can also help by reducing the amount of fine particles indoors, according to NSW Health.

Air purifiers with a HEPA filter can help to reduce the amount of fine particles indoors associated with bushfire smoke. Click To Tweet

Naturally, if you stay indoors for weeks at a time and aren’t out in the sun, your vitamin D levels could drop, so consider eating vitamin D-rich food or taking a supplement.

Selecting a bushfire smoke mask

Masks with a P2 or N95 rating work by filtering out those tiny particles, and while not completely perfect, give better protection than paper or cloth masks, which won’t give you any protection. 

Masks become less protective as they get wet with vapour from your breath, so they only have a lifespan of a few hours

These masks can also make it harder to breathe, so be careful in hot weather or if you’re exercising. If you have a heart or lung condition, check with your doctor before using a mask. And if you feel dizzy while wearing a mask, remove it straight away.

Protect your health and look out for others

The most important message at this time is to reduce your exposure to bushfire smoke, and to seek medical help quickly if you have any deterioration in your health or any health-related concerns. 

It’s an important time to look out for ourselves and also for those around us, particularly neighbours who may have limited family or community support.

Make a donation

If you would like to make a donation to the bushfire relief effort, there are a wide range of organisations you can support.

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