What is bushfire smoke?
Smoke from bushfires is made up of small particles, gases and water vapour. The particles are very small - up to 1/30th the diameter of an average human hair - and are not visible to the human eye.
The gases in bushfire smoke include carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds.
Bushfire smoke exposure and health effects
Fine smoke particles are known to affect the human breathing system. The smaller or finer the particles, the deeper they go into the lungs.
These particles can cause a variety of health problems, such as itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation, runny nose and illnesses such as bronchitis. The smoke particles can also aggravate existing lung conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.
Symptoms can occur for several days after smoke is inhaled, so people with the above conditions need to be vigilant with their treatment programs.
If you have asthma or a lung condition and you develop symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing or wheezing, follow your asthma or COPD action plan.
If symptoms do not settle, seek medical advice. If you are on home oxygen treatment, continue as prescribed. If breathlessness worsens, contact your doctor.
Healthy adults generally find that any symptoms they have developed during a bushfire event clear after the smoke disappears.
The following precautions can help you minimise adverse effects of bushfire smoke:
- Stay indoors, with windows and doors closed, or stay in air-conditioned premises, if possible.
- Avoid vigorous exercise, especially if you have asthma or a lung condition.
- Cover your nose and mouth with a mask designed to filter fine particles. Use a mask rated either P1 or P2. These are available from hardware stores. P2 masks are more effective in blocking the finest particles, however any mask has to be worn correctly over the nose and mouth to protect you.
If smoke conditions are hazardous, your local Public Health Unit may advise you to postpone outdoor events or seek shelter in air-conditioned premises or a clean-air room, if one is available.
If the bushfire event lasts a long time, say, a few weeks, consider the following precautions to reduce exposure:
- Take advantage of any breaks in smoky conditions to air out your home, but remember to close off the house again when conditions deteriorate.
- Reduce physical activity.
- If you are particularly susceptible to bushfire smoke, consider staying with a friend or relative whose house has clean indoor air, or leaving the area for a cleaner environment.
For further information you can call 1300 066 055 to talk to your local Public Health Unit.