Bushfire smoke

Smoke from bushfires, planned burns and other sources can impact air quality. Bushfire smoke contains toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides, and particles, all of which can be hazardous to your health. Small particles in smoke effects the lungs ability to breathe and causes coughing, sore throat and runny nose. For healthy adults these effects usually disappear quickly once they move away from the smoky conditions. However, exposure to smoke over long periods of time (several weeks to months) during bushfire seasons can increase the risk of lung disease, anxiety and distress.

People with heart or respiratory conditions (including heart failure and high blood pressure, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease) are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in smoke. Smoke is also more likely to affect children, pregnant women and older adults.

Fine smoke particles can contribute to inflammation and narrowing of blood vessels in the heart and trigger bronchospasm in the windpipes (bronchi) of the lungs, making breathing more difficult. Farmers or agricultural workers with pre-existing heart and lung conditions should avoid exposure to bushfire smoke where possible.

Reduce your risk of bush fire smoke exposure:

  • Stay indoors. If you can’t stay indoors and you need to be outside – wear a P2 dust mask which has been properly fit tested.
  • Wear AS/NZS approved P2 face masks. Note: a P1 dust mask handkerchiefs or bandannas do not filter out the fine particles of smoke and will not protect your lungs from smoke as effectively as a P2 dust mask. It is important to note that whilst a P2 dust mask will protect you from smoke, it can make it more difficult to breathe. If you do have a lung/heart or medical condition, you should seek medical advice about wearing a mask long before you actually need one. P2 face masks with a valve will feel less claustrophobic to breathe through.
  • Protect eyes. The small particles in smoke will also irritate and cause sore, itchy eyes. Wearing a non-ventilated goggle or a smoke visor/goggle combination will protect and assist with visibility.
  • Reduce physical activity outdoors. If you need to exercise access indoor gyms and pools with good air quality.
  • Quit smoking as it makes you more sensitive to air pollution.
  • Trust your senses – if you smell and see smoke, the risk of high level of exposure is likely. If you feel difficulty breathing, wheezing or tight chest, seek urgent medical help and call triple zero (000).

On days of high Fire Danger Risk (FDR):

  • Keep well and stay well hydrated
  • Follow local Fire Authority news and advice
  • Follow your fire plan to protect you from the threat of bushfire and smoke
  • Follow air quality information – be aware of the daily Air Quality Index (AQI)
  • If you have a lung or heart condition and on prescribed medication, make sure you update your management action plan, take your medication and ensure you have enough medications for several days in case you can’t re stock your supply easily.

It is crucial you remove yourself from smoke, seek medical help or Call triple (000) if you start to experience the following:

  • difficulty breathing
  • coughing
  • chest tightness
  • chest pain
  • palpitations
  • fatigue

To find out more information about smoke and your health visit Better Health Channel

Fast facts:

  • Bushfire smoke can affect your health, especially if you have lung or heart conditions.
  • When bushfires are around, keep outdoor activities to a minimum where possible.
  • Remember even after the fire has gone smoke particles and gases can irritate and affect your lungs over the following days.
  • Seek urgent medical help and call triple zero (000) if you have chest pain or breathing problems.

References used for this topic

More information:

Asthma Foundation
Bushfires

EPA Victoria
Smoke and your health

Department of Health (Vic)
Bushfires and public health

Department of Health and Human Services
Bushfire smoke and your health

Research & reviews:

Medical Journal of Australia
Bushfire Smoke: Urgent need for a national health protection strategy (2020)

Medical Journal of Australia
Bushfire Smoke responsible for over 400 excess deaths (2020)