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Bush fires and lung health

By Dr. Anu Siriwardana
Respiratory, Sleep and General medicine specialist

Bush fires and grass fires are an intrinsic part of Australia’s environment.  Australia is prone to bushfires at any time of the year. Bushfires produce particulate -matter pollution. These particles are small enough to enter the human lung and cause significant respiratory diseases. Bushfire smoke is a mixture of hazardous substances including different size particles, gases including carbon monoxide/dioxide and nitrogen oxide and water vapour. During a bushfire large amount of finer particles and gases are released to the atmosphere and breathing these smoke can cause significant adverse effects.

Large particles can irritate eyes, nose, throat and lungs. Small particles can penetrate in to the lungs and worsen the lung and heart conditions.

Who are at risk?

  • People suffering from lung conditions –(E.g. Asthma, Emphysema, Allergies and other chronic lung conditions)
  • Children
  • Elderly
  • Smokers
  • Pregnant women
  • People with heart diseases

What are the symptoms of smoke exposure ?

  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pains
  • Sneezing, runny nose and allergic symptoms

Different induvials have different response to bushfire smoke exposure. Some will be very sensitive to smoke and some will tolerate lot more than others.

Even healthy individuals can experience significant respiratory symptoms if they get exposed to  high levels of smoke

What are the steps to decrease the exposure to bush fire smoke?

  • Pay attention to media reports and bush fire alerts
  • Stay inside and avoid exposure to smoke
  • Avoid vigorous exercise
  • If you are inside the house, keep windows and doors closed
  • Use an air conditioner if available (in recycle/recirculate mode) or go to a place where air conditioning is available (Eg : shopping mall, library etc)
  • Use a portable air filter if available (correct size with a HEPA filter) if available
  • Avoid smoking, wood fires or using candles which can add to the air pollution
  • Wear a P2 mask if smoke exposure is unavoidable - Simple paper and cloth masks would not provide any protection ( P2 masks  will be effective only if used correctly- Please consult your doctor before using a P2 mask)
  • Consider staying in a relative’s or friend’s place outside the affected area if smoke continues for some time

Have a health plan

  • If you suffer from a lung or heart problem, make sure to have at least 5-7 days’ worth of medications with you.
  • Make sure your asthma action plan is up to date.

Where to get help ?

  • See your local doctor or after-hours GP
  • Call 13 HEALTH (13 432584) for more information
  • If a medical emergency – call 000

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