Bushfire Smoke Breathing

Smoke from bushfires and dust storms can affect air quality, even over long distances. Being aware of health-related symptoms and taking precautions during times of reduced air quality can help minimise impacts to your health.

What’s in bushfire smoke?
Bushfire smoke is a mixture of water vapour, small particles and gases including carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxides. The larger particles are visible to our eyes which is why we notice a visible haze when a fire is burning.

The larger particles can cause irritation to the nose and throat while the smaller particles and gases can find their way deeper into the lungs causing more adverse health effects.

What causes dust storms?
Dust storms are a natural event and as much of our country is made up of deserts and semi-arid rangelands, they are common in Australia. The risk of a dust storm increases during periods of drought and in summer.

Dust particles can vary in size from those that are too large to be inhaled to so small they can find their way into respiratory tracts and lungs.

How can smoke and dust affect my health?
The most common symptoms caused by bushfire smoke and dust storms include itchy eyes, sore throats, runny noses and coughs. Bushfire smoke can also cause conditions including bronchitis and exasperate existing respiratory conditions including as asthma and emphysema. Symptoms caused by the particles in the bushfire smoke can continue for days after they’re inhaled. Exposure to a dust storm may trigger allergic reactions and asthma attached and prolonged exposure can lead to chronic problems.

Healthy adults usually find that once the smoke and dust dissipates, symptoms will begin to clear up. However, those at higher risk of complications like children, the pregnant and elderly or those with existing heart or lung conditions are more sensitive to prolonged effects.

5 ways to reduce your risk
If you can see or smell bushfire smoke, it’s advised to take steps to reduce your exposure. It’s important to be aware that visibility may also decrease during times of bushfires or dust storms and the NSW Government says to be prepared to pull off the road if travelling during a dust storm where visibility reduces to less than 100m.

If you can’t leave the impacted area, here’s a few things that will minimise your health risk with minimal disruption to your normal routine:

  1. Stay inside and keep windows and doors closed,
  2. Avoid exercising outside,
  3. Set your air conditioner to recirculate and if the bushfire smoke is particularly bad, consider a portable air filter,
  4. Keep medication on hand and follow a treatment plan. This is especially important for those with asthma as the bushfire smoke can trigger or worsen symptoms. The Victorian Health Department suggests keeping five days medication on hand. Follow your recommended treatment plan and if symptoms do not settle, see your health care professional.
  5. Consider wearing a dust mask. The NSW Health Department says a P2 to P3 mask available from hardware stores can block even fine particles in the air. Make sure it’s properly fitted over your mouth and nose and remember that while it will filter out particles like dust in the air, it won’t provide protection from gases associated with bushfire smoke.

Take advantage of a break in any smoky or dusty conditions to open your home. Don’t forget to manage heat stress, check on vulnerable friends, family and neighbours and stay up to date with local news reports for advice and warnings.

Sources: ABC News, NSW Government; Bushfire Smoke and Dust Storms, Queensland Government and Ipswich First.