How can bushfire smoke affect your health?

With bushfire smoke haze blanketing parts of Australia, there are a few things you should do to reduce health risks.

Mammoth bushfires have devastated communities and left smoke lingering over areas much further afield.

Bushfire smoke haze has sparked air quality warnings, including in Melbourne, Canberra and Sydney.

And experts warn bushfire smoke can be hazardous to health, particularly for children, pregnant women, older people and those with pre-existing conditions such as heart or lung diseases, including asthma.

Here’s what you need to know about bushfire smoke and your health.

Is bushfire smoke bad for you?

Heart Foundation chief medical adviser Professor Garry Jennings says bushfire smoke contains harmful gases like carbon monoxide and “very small particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs”.

For most people, the effects of heavy smoke are relatively mild, with symptoms such as itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation, runny nose, congestion and coughing.

But Prof Jennings says smoke particles can cross from the lungs into the bloodstream, contributing to inflammation and narrowing of blood vessels and increasing the chance of blood clots in vulnerable people.

This can worsen pre-existing conditions like heart failure and high blood pressure, and can even trigger heart attacks, Prof Jennings says.

“Bushfire smoke may cause or aggravate symptoms such as chest pain and shortness of breath,” he says.

Australian Medical Association federal president Dr Tony Bartone says the small particles in bushfire smoke can also trigger asthma.

The long-term effects of persistent smoke haze are still unknown, Dr Bartone told the House of Wellness radio team.

Who is most at risk from bushfire smoke?

The NSW Health Department says those likely to be most sensitive to bushfire smoke include people with heart or lung diseases, including asthma, bronchitis and emphysema; children, whose airways are still developing; older people, who are more likely to have heart or lung disease; and pregnant women.

“If you have a condition such as heart failure, we urge you to try to minimise your exposure to bushfire fire smoke and pollutants,” Prof Jennings says.

How to ease symptoms of bushfire smoke exposure

Water-based eye drops may help ease minor eye irritations, while lozenges can help soothe a smoke-induced sore throat.

If you are worried about any symptoms, see a GP or call the 24/7 Healthdirect hotline on 1800 022 222.

“If you are having trouble breathing, or experience chest pain or tightness, you should seek immediate medical help by calling 000,” says Prof Jennings.

How to decrease risks from bushfire smoke

Stay inside if possible

Avoid prolonged periods outdoors, particularly if you are in a higher-risk group.

“It’s important to stay inside where possible, keep your medicines close at hand, and follow the advice of your doctor,” Prof Jennings says.

Limit vigorous activity and exercise, including strenuous walking. Visit air-conditioned places like shopping centres, libraries or cinemas, if needed.

“If it’s prolonged exposure… maybe look at trying to get out of the area for a little while. Go to a sister’s place, a mother’s place, whatever the options that might be available,” says Dr Bartone.

Minimise smoke inside your home

Prof Jennings recommends closing windows and doors during heavy smoke haze.

“If you have air-conditioning, switch it to recycle or recirculate to help filter particles from indoor air, and avoid being outdoors while smoke is in the area,” he says.

The NSW Health Department recommends avoiding indoor air pollutants such as cigarettes, candles and incense sticks.

Try an air purifier

An air purifier with a high efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter can reduce the number of fine particles indoors, as long the room is well-sealed.

“My advice is to use those purifiers in really small areas,” says Dr Bartone.

Consider a face mask

Face masks can help, but they need to be P2/N95-rated to filter out fine particles of smoke – surgical or cloth masks won’t cut it.

“They work to a fairly good extent but they’re not a permanent safeguard, so again, if you don’t need to be out there, don’t be out there,” says Dr Bartone.

Also be aware that it can be harder to breathe through a P2/N95 face mask, which can increase the risk of heat-related illness.

Watch out for vulnerable family and friends

Check in regularly with elderly, unwell or pregnant relatives, friends or neighbours and their carers to make sure they are OK. Keep an eye on young children, too.

If you suffer asthma

National Asthma Council chief executive Siobhan Brophy says people with asthma and allergies should monitor their health throughout summer, and act quickly if symptoms start.

“It’s important to stick to a good routine by taking your preventer inhaler every day as prescribed,” says Ms Brophy.

Those in bushfire-prone areas should make sure they have their medication and written asthma action plan in their emergency evacuation kit.

Monitor air quality in your area:

Written by Michelle Rose.