What are the dangers of bushfire smoke?
Bushfires are an unfortunate part of summer in Australia. Bushfire smoke contains toxic gases (such as carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides) and airborne particles, which can be harmful to your health. Small particles in smoke can cause a sore throat, runny nose or coughing. It can also affect your lungs and aggravate asthma or other respiratory conditions.
Even though you may not have a bushfire near you, smoke from bushfires can spread great distances depending on the weather conditions.
Pregnant women and children under 14 years are among those at greater risk from bushfire smoke.
How is bushfire smoke harmful during pregnancy?
Pregnant women can feel the effects of smoke more than others because of the changes to their body, both physical and hormonal.
Short-term exposure to bushfire smoke can cause breathing difficulties, headaches and irritation to your eyes, nose and throat.
How is bushfire smoke harmful to children?
Young children can be affected because their airways and lungs are still developing. They also breathe faster than adults.
It’s not known if long-term exposure to bushfire smoke increases the risk of SIDS, but it is well known that smoking near your child and not having proper air circulation does increase the risk of SIDS.
Can bushfire smoke affect people with asthma?
Pregnant women and children with asthma need to be especially careful since smoke is a serious health risk to them.
- 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.
What can I do to protect myself and my children?
There are several things you can do to limit you and your family’s 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.
- Use a portable air cleaner or purifier (with a high-efficiency particular air (HEPA) filter).
- Wear an appropriate mask if you need to go outside.
- Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water.
- 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.
If your children are home for school holidays, 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.
Resources and support
Speak to your doctor if you or your child are affected by bushfire smoke.
Read more about bushfire health and safety on healthdirect.
Your state or territory fire service will keep you informed about local fire conditions, danger ratings and warnings:
- ACT — esa.act.gov.au/actrfs/
- New South Wales — rfs.nsw.gov.au
- Northern Territory — nt.gov.au/bushfires
- Queensland — ruralfire.qld.gov.au
- South Australia — cfs.sa.gov.au
- Tasmania — fire.tas.gov.au
- Victoria – cfa.vic.gov.au
- Western Australia — dfes.wa.gov.au
Speak to a maternal child health nurse
Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: October 2023