Tips to prevent bushfire smoke from affecting your health

Bushfire weather conditions are predicted to become more severe for many regions of Australia in the future, the Bureau of Meteorology reports, so we can reasonably expect to wake up to smoke haze and ‘hazardous’ air quality conditions more regularly - even if we’re nowhere near the bushfires.

RELATED: How do most bushfires start in Australia?

The smoke from the recent bushfires in New South Wales and Queensland not only spread to New Zealand, but as far as South America.

Melbourne city streetscape in smoke haze

Why is bushfire smoke considered ‘hazardous’?

When air quality is said to be ‘hazardous’, it means it’s been given the highest value on the Air Quality Index (AQI)1  – a measurement of the particles and gases in the air, and its visibility2  - which ranges from 0-33 for ‘very good’ to 200+ for ‘hazardous’.

It’s the fine particles in bushfire smoke, along with gases such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, that make it such a big concern when it comes to our health, particularly if you’re someone with asthma or a lung condition such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema.

RELATED: Returning to your home after a bushfire

These particles, invisible to the human eye, can get deep into the lungs and as a result affect the way you breathe3. You may experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing.

Symptoms to watch out for

Generally, in healthy adults, symptoms such as itchy eyes, a runny nose or an irritated throat may develop, but then clear after the smoke disappears. Dr Richard Broome, director of environmental health at NSW Health, said4:“For most people, smoke causes mild symptoms... However, people with existing lung and heart conditions like asthma, emphysema and angina are more likely to be sensitive to the effects of smoke.”

Also vulnerable are children up to 14 years, pregnant women and people over 65 years of age, reports the Environment Protection Authority Victoria5.

Young woman at Melbourne tram spot wearing a P1/P2 mask

RELATED: Bushfire warnings explained

It’s recommended that anyone belonging to these categories be extra cautious and, if on medication, to take it as prescribed. Asthmatics should follow their personal asthma action plan and have reliever medication at hand. Symptoms can last several days for people with an existing condition; if they do not settle, Health NSW advises to seek medical attention6.

Precautions to take when air quality conditions are ‘hazardous’

When the AQI is ‘hazardous’7, the health alert for sensitive groups is to avoid all outdoor physical activities, while it’s recommended that everyone else reduce outdoor physical activities.

“The best way to reduce exposure to smoke is to stay indoors with the doors and windows shut,” says Dr Broome8. “Air conditioning can also help to filter particles from indoor air.”

If you don’t have aircon at home, Asthma Australia’s Bushfire Smoke report9 suggests you go to an air-conditioned space in your local area such as a library or supermarket. They also recommended that if you do use aircon at home, you use it on recycle.

A portable air cleaner – distinct from an air purifier or filter – may also be effective, says Asthma Australia, but only in isolated places, not the whole house.

P1 or P2 masks – with the latter blocking the finest particles - are available from hardware stores and may also be helpful, if worn correctly10 over the nose and mouth.

The advice on this website is general in nature and has been prepared without taking into account your objectives, financial situation or needs. You must decide whether or not it is appropriate, in light of your own circumstances, to act on this advice. You should ensure you obtain and consider the policy wording or Product Disclosure Statement for the policy before you make any decision to buy it.

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