Bushfire smoke and your health

This page provides information for those exposed to bushfire smoke outside of an immediate fire emergency zone.

If you are in direct contact with smoke, radiant heat and flames of an emergency fire zone, please follow the instructions of emergency services, such SA Country Fire Service.

Bushfire smoke, which is made up of both large and small particles, can reduce air quality and cause a number of health problems. The larger particles can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs. The finer particles, also called PM2.5 (referring to their size of 2.5 microns or less), are able to penetrate deep into the lungs, and can cross into the bloodstream.

Smoke particles can also aggravate existing lung conditions, such as chronic bronchitis, emphysema and asthma and/or heart conditions. This may lead to increased hospital visits and possibly even death.

Smoky air can also contain harmful gases, along with many other chemical compounds that can be attached to the particles. If buildings, garbage or vehicles are burnt, the smoke may also contain very toxic chemicals, including asbestos.

Daily, and even hourly, air quality updates for all of South Australia can be found on the Environment Protection Agency (EPA) website.

People at risk

  • those with existing heart or lung conditions, including angina, ischaemic heart disease, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (bronchitis and emphysema)
  • those over 65 years of age
  • children 14 years and younger, especially those with asthma
  • pregnant women
  • those with diabetes

Symptoms of bushfire smoke

A person may feel unwell for up to several days after exposure to bushfire smoke, so it is important to continue any medications as prescribed. Symptoms of bushfire smoke can include:

  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing and coughing
  • burning eyes
  • running nose
  • chest tightness
  • chest pain
  • dizziness or light-headedness
  • psychological distress

If you are having difficulty breathing, please seek medical attention - either from your local GP or the local emergency department.

Preventive measures

To minimise the health effects from exposure to bushfire smoke:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible.
  • Close windows, doors, and air vents. Please note: this advice may only assist with reduced exposure for hours or a few days, as outside air will eventually enter the home.
  • Use appropriate air conditioner settings in the home and vehicles to prevent outside air coming in:
    • Set to 'recycle', 'recirculate' or ‘re-use’ when possible.
    • Split-systems: do not use outside air and therefore do not need to be adjusted.
    • Evaporative air conditioner systems: turn off at the first sign of thick smoke in your area, as they rely on air from outside.
    • Central air conditioning systems: may take air from outside through a filter system, but it is best to set it to re-circulate.
  • Spend time in air conditioned venues, like cinemas, shopping centres and libraries. Their central air conditioning systems may use filters that can keep out particles more efficiently.
  • Reduce indoor sources of air pollution such as smoking, cooking with gas, burning candles or vacuum cleaning.
  • Avoid vigorous outdoor activities, especially those with asthma or other chronic lung or heart conditions.

Face masks

Special masks (called 'P2' or N95') filter bushfire smoke, providing some protection against inhaling fine particles if used correctly. Masks also need to be changed regularly; especially in thick smoke is present (3 - 4 times a day).

Ordinary paper dusk masks, handkerchiefs or bandanas do not filter out fine particles from bushfire smoke and are generally not very useful in protecting your lungs.

P2 or N95 masks are not recommended for the general community. The use of masks should be limited to:

  • vulnerable people including those with significant health issues;
  • people whose only option is to work outside; or
  • people returning to their properties in burned areas.

For more information, see the Advice on the use of masks by the Australian Government for those exposed to bushfire smoke.

When air quality improves

Odour from bushfire smoke is likely to remain after smoke particles have cleared.

When air quality improves, doors and windows should be opened to help ventilate the home and remove smoke odour. Hard surfaces (furniture, walls and floors) can be washed with mild soap or detergent and water. Soft furniture and bedding can be aired outside, but may need washing to remove the smell of bushfire smoke.

When the smoke travels long distances, the odour may dissipate, but can leave a fine haze of particles that can continue to trigger symptoms in some people. People who have respiratory issues should remain vigilant until the haze has completely dissipated.

Further information