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The health impact of bushfire smoke

What does bushfire smoke actually do to my body / health?

Smoke from bushfires is made up of very small particles and gases. Smoke particles in the air can irritate your eyes, nose and throat. The particles are so small they can also penetrate deep into the lungs and aggravate existing lung and heart conditions.

What are the health effects of exposure to bushfire smoke / poor air quality?

For most people the health effects are relatively mild symptoms like sore eyes, nose and throat, and/or cough. These symptoms are temporary.

People with a lung or heart condition such as emphysema, angina and asthma will generally have similarly mild symptoms, but they may experience a worsening of their condition that could lead to a more severe response such as an asthma attack or heart attack.

How long will it take for the symptoms to subside if I’m healthy?

Healthy adults will generally find that any symptoms they have developed during a bushfire event will clear after the smoke disappears. However, symptoms can last several days.

Do I need to see a doctor if I have a sore throat, watery eyes, runny nose if the symptoms last longer than a day?

You should be guided by your symptoms. For most people the symptoms associated with smoke exposure are mild and will cease soon after the exposure has ended. If you have a condition like asthma and your symptoms are not controlled by your usual medication, a doctor may be able to adjust your treatment.

Air quality levels / Air Quality Index

How do I check air quality levels?

You can check air quality levels using the air quality index (AQI). The AQI is available from Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.

Is visually looking outside the best way to judge?

Smoke is visible and you can use this as a guide to how high particle levels are near you.

What is the Air Quality Index? What do fair? Poor? Very poor? Hazardous levels mean?

The air quality index (AQI) is an index for reporting daily and hourly air quality at your nearest monitoring site or in you region. It is an indication of how clean or polluted the air is in areas across NSW. The Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is responsible for air quality monitoring in NSW and issuing the AQI.

Each colour category in the AQI corresponds to a different level of health risk:

Air Quality Index (AQI AQI value Health risk
Very Good and Good

0 - 66

Air quality is considered good, and air pollution poses little or no risk

Fair

67-99

Air quality is acceptable. However, there may be a health concern for very susceptible people.

Poor

100-149

Air quality could be a problem for susceptible people. For example, people with lung disease are at greater risk from exposure to ozone, while people with either lung disease or heart disease are at greater risk from exposure to particle pollution. The general population is not likely to be affected when the AQI is in this range.

Very poor

150-200

Everyone may begin to experience health effects. People from susceptible groups may experience more serious health effects.

Hazardous

> 200

Everyone may experience more serious health effects. In Sydney, the AQI only reaches this level during major bushfires or dust storms.

What can I do when the air quality index is fair? poor? very poor? hazardous?

For healthy adults 18+

Air Quality Index Call to action/message

Fair

Enjoy activities

Poor

Enjoy activities

Very poor

Cut back or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities

Hazardous

Significantly cut back on outdoor physical activities

For higher-risk populations

Air Quality Index Call to action/message

Fair

Plan strenuous outdoor activities when air quality is better

Poor

Cut back or reschedule strenuous outdoor activities

Very poor

Avoid strenuous outdoor activities

Hazardous

Avoid all outdoor physical activities

Outdoor physical activity

Can I do vigorous activity if it’s not outside? Can I go to an indoor gym or play indoor sports?

Yes, indoor sporting venues such as gyms, pools and courts are acceptable, as long as they are fully enclosed and air conditioned. People with heart and lung conditions should consult their doctor before commencing vigorous activity during this time.

Outdoor events / venues

Where should I go to get out of the smoke pollution that isn’t my home?

Spend time in air conditioned indoor venues like cinemas, shopping centres and libraries.

I live in a regional/remote area and don’t have access to air conditioned indoor venues like cinemas, shopping centres and libraries. What should I do?

Reduce your exposure to bushfire smoke by spending more time inside your house with the doors and windows closed. Open doors and windows during smoke-free periods. Air purifiers with a HEPA filter in a small enclosed area can reduce smoke particles from indoor air.

Pregnancy and children

I’m pregnant and need to go outside a lot – what risk is there to me? My unborn baby?

Pregnant women may be more sensitive to the health effects of bushfire smoke. When the air quality is poor pregnant women should cut back or reschedule their strenuous outdoor activities and try to spend more time indoors.

What are the health impact on infants and young children? Is there any chance of lasting damage?

Infants and young children are more sensitive to the health effects of bushfire smoke and it is important to reduce their exposure. Most children will recover quickly from bushfire smoke impacts and will not experience long term health consequences.

Face masks

What is a P2/N95 face mask?

Disposable P2/N95 face masks (also known as P2/N95 respirators) are face masks that filter very fine particles from the air when worn correctly and when a good fit is achieved..

P2/N95 face masks may help reduce the wearer’s exposure to bushfire smoke and poor air quality, and the impact on their health. .

What are P2 masks normally used for? Who usually wears them?

P2 masks are normally used for occupational and workplace safety reasons, for example by outdoor workers, technicians and trades workers. They are also used by healthcare workers caring for patients with certain infectious diseases.

P2 masks provide protection against the fine particles generated by bushfires, but only if used correctly and if a good fit is achieved.

Are P2 masks suitable for everyone?

P2 masks are not suitable for everyone.

P2 masks are effective when they form a tight seal around the face, and are fitted according to the manufacturer’s instructions. It can be difficult to achieve and maintain a tight seal due to different facial features (such as beards or stubble) or due to different facial sizes (such as children).

People with beards should shave before using a P2 mask as a good seal between the mask and the wearer’s face cannot be achieved with facial hair.

Wearing a P2/N95 face mask can make it harder to breathe and increase the risk of heat-related illness. People with pre-existing heart and lung conditions should consult their doctor before using P2 masks.

If you have difficulty breathing, feel dizzy, faint or have other symptoms while wearing a face mask, remove the mask and move indoors or a place where there is better air quality.

Remember, the best way to protect yourself from bushfire smoke and poor air quality is to reduce your exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed, and avoiding outdoor exercise.

Can young children wear P2 masks?

Children can find it difficult or impractical to wear a face mask correctly.

A more effective way for children to reduce their exposure is to stay indoors with doors and windows closed.

Speak to your child’s general practitioner if your child has a pre-existing condition such as asthma or if you have any questions or concerns about your child and air quality levels.

Do I need to wear a P2 mask?

P2 masks are not recommended for general use.

The best way to protect yourself from bushfire smoke and poor air quality is to reduce your exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed, and avoiding outdoor exercise.

Residents returning to fire-damaged homes after bushfires should take precautions while cleaning up their property. During the clean-up period, people are reminded to wear P2/N95 face masks and protective clothing including sturdy footwear, heavy-duty work gloves and disposable coveralls.

People whose only option is to work outside on smoky days may also benefit from wearing a P2 mask.

Should people in areas that are not directly affected by bushfires such as Sydney be wearing P2 masks?

The best way to protect yourself from bushfire smoke and poor air quality is to reduce your exposure by staying indoors with windows and doors closed, and avoiding outdoor exercise.

If you need to be outdoors and are concerned about the effects of smoke, talk to your general practitioner about what additional protection is right for you.

How long can I wear a P2 mask?

P2 masks should be removed and disposed of after about four hours of continuous use, or when they become moist. This is because the seal will not be as effective.

Masks can also fill up with particles which can make them harder to breathe through. If you notice this occurring, or if the mask is damaged or soiled, remove and dispose of it.

P2 masks should be replaced after each use.

Are free P2 masks being distributed in NSW?

NSW Health is distributing free P2 masks provided by the Commonwealth to community pharmacies, health facilities, hospitals, and recovery and evacuation centres in bushfire-affected areas.

Community pharmacies are the best places to visit to collect a face mask. It is a good idea to ring ahead before you visit to make sure there is stock available.

For a list of locations providing Commonwealth-provided P2 masks, refer to P2 mask.

The NSW Government is distributing additional masks to bushfire-affected areas on a daily basis and regularly monitoring stock levels. The NSW Health operations centre will continue to distribute additional stock to areas of need as orders are received.

I live in a bushfire-affected area. How can I get a P2 face mask?

NSW Health is distributing free P2 masks provided by the Commonwealth to community pharmacies, health facilities, hospitals, and recovery and evacuation centres in bushfire-affected areas.

Community pharmacies are the best places to visit to collect a face mask. It is a good idea to ring ahead before you visit to make sure there is stock available.

For a list of locations providing Commonwealth-provided P2 masks, refer to P2 mask.

The NSW Government is distributing additional masks to bushfire-affected areas on a daily basis and regularly monitoring stock levels. The NSW Health operations centre will continue to distribute additional stock to areas of need as orders are received.

Why isn’t the mask available for free in every location? What are the alternatives?

P2 masks are being distributed to assist frontline workers and those most at risk of significant health effects from smoke in communities affected by the bushfires. This includes people with existing heart or lung conditions, people over 65 years of age, pregnant women and people engaged in bushfire clean-up activities.

People who are not in bushfire affected areas can consider using P2 masks when there is poor air quality. Check air quality levels at: NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment: Current and forecast air quality.

The best way to protect your health when air quality is poor is to stay indoors and avoid outdoor exercise. Using a P2 mask does not remove the health risk from undertaking vigorous outdoor exercise (like going for a jog) when there is poor air quality.

If my pharmacy runs out of masks, where can I find one?

You can purchase P2 masks from many hardware stores and other safety equipment suppliers.

Where can I find more information?

The NSW Health website has health information on how to prepare, respond to and recover from the current NSW bushfires and high temperatures. Visit Bushfire for more information.

For how to fit a face mask, refer to P2 mask fact sheet.

Air conditioning / air purifiers / humidifiers

Does my home air conditioning filter the particles or bring it into my home?

Household air conditioners do not filter fine particles present in the bushfire smoke. Commercial air conditioners are better suited to filter fine particle and so spending time in indoor venues like cinemas, libraries and shopping centres can be an effective way of avoiding exposure to particles.

How effective are air purifiers? What should I look for if I want to purchase one?

Air purifiers with a high efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter are able to reduce the number of fine particles indoors. For an indoor air purifier to work well, the purifier must be matched to the size of the room it is in and the room must be well sealed. People should ensure these conditions are met if they look to purchase an air purifier.

Other

What steps should older adults take?

Elderly people may be more sensitive to the health effects of smoke and are more likely to have heart or lung disease.

Older people should reduce their exposure to bushfire smoke by avoiding vigorous outdoor exercise and spending more time indoors.

Does hot weather (i.e. a heatwave) make the smoke worse? What should I do on extremely hot days when it is also smoky?

It’s best to stay indoors during the hottest part of the day, which is generally from about 11am to 4pm. Staying indoors also protects you from bushfire smoke.

If you don’t have air conditioning, using a fan can cool you down and keeping curtains shut helps to keep the heat out of your home. It’s also important to minimise physical activity and to drink plenty of water.

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Page Updated: Friday 17 January 2020
Contact page owner: Environmental Health