Bushfires in several parts of Australia have devastated many communities. The rest of the country is experiencing the effects of the fires, with smoke blanketing many towns and cities.
Children under 14 years and pregnant women should take extra steps to protect themselves from exposure to smoke, the Australian Medical Association has warned in a statement.
Young children can be affected because their airways and lungs are still developing. They also breathe in more air relative to their body weight.
Pregnant women can feel the effects of smoke more than others because of the changes to their body, both physical and hormonal. Long-term exposure to air pollution has also been linked to gestational diabetes, preterm birth and low birth weight.
People with pre-existing illnesses, such as heart and lung conditions (including asthma) and people over 65 years of age are also being warned to take extra precautions.
“The length and density of smoke exposure is a new and possibly fatal health risk that many people within our community have not previously had to face,” said AMA President, Dr Tony Bartone, who urged everyone to be aware of the risks and seek medical care where needed.
“With denser smoke haze and longer periods that people endure smoke inhalation, there is a much higher risk that previously healthy people will face developing serious illness.”
Dr Vijay Roach, president of The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG), also has a warning for pregnant women during this bushfire season.
“As our cities and communities are enveloped in smoke as a result of the current bushfires, we would encourage pregnant women to heed advice from authorities, take precautions, limit outdoor activities and try to spend more time indoors. For those unable to avoid prolonged exposure to inhaled air pollution, masks may have a role,” Dr Roach said.
"With denser smoke haze and longer periods that people endure smoke inhalation, there is a much higher risk that previously healthy people will face developing serious illness."
What can you do to protect yourself and your children?
There are several things you can do to limit your exposure to bushfire smoke:
- Limit outdoor activities, especially on visibly smoky days.
- Keep the windows and doors of your home shut.
- Avoid air conditioners that draw air from the outside.
- If you are in your car, keep windows closed and set your air conditioner to recirculate (instead of drawing air from the outside).
- Avoid any air pollution inside the home, such as candles or cigarettes.
- When the smoke does clear, open up the windows to allow fresh air into the house.
At this time of year, most children are at home on school holidays and it can be hard to keep them entertained indoors for long periods of time. If you do go out, try to pick air-conditioned venues, like shopping centres, cinemas or libraries.
Watch this short video from NSW Health, with tips on how to avoid smoke.
Do face masks help?
Most face masks will not filter the fine particles of smoke so they will not be effective in protecting you or your children from smoke. The only types of face mask that do provide any protection are P2/N95 rated face masks. These can be purchased from hardware stores and must be properly fitted to be of any use. However, they are not designed for children.
Do air purifiers work?
Air purifiers that have a high efficiency particle air (HEPA) filter can reduce the smoke particles in your house. It's important that indoor air purifiers are properly matched to the size of your room and that the room is well sealed.
Can bushfire smoke affect people with asthma?
Pregnant women and children with asthma need to be especially careful since, for them, smoke is a serious health risk.
- Make sure your Asthma Action Plan is up to date if you have asthma.
- Keep your asthma medication with you at all times and make sure prescriptions are current.
If you or your child experiences wheezing, chest tightness or difficulty breathing, you should seek urgent medical attention or if it’s an emergency, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.