Protect your lungs in the worst-ever bushfire season

Nov 12, 2019
Those with lung conditions have been warned to take extra care due to reduced air quality. Source: Getty

We’re witnessing the worst start to bushfire season in recent history. We’ve seen hundreds of homes destroyed, thousands of hectares of land burned and three people killed in the last week – and this is just the beginning of what is tipped to be a long, hot, dry and dangerous bushfire season.

Now, doctors say that even if you’re fortunate enough to be out of the range of the fires themselves, it’s important you be aware how the resulting poor air quality could impact your health, particularly if you have respiratory or cardiovascular conditions.

In Brisbane, the air quality is currently worse than Beijing, as haze from bushfires blankets the south-east corner. Meanwhile, residents in Sydney woke to a similarly hazy, red-tinged sky.

Residents of Brisbane, Ipswich and the Gold Coast in particular have been issued a general warning this week, with residents urged not to go outside unless absolutely necessary. Dr Jeanette Young, Queensland’s chief health officer, said the warning went beyond those with the usual risk factors because the smoke was so thick and persistent that it posed a risk to everybody.

“I am urging Queenslanders to remain vigilant if they suffer from pre-existing health conditions that can be exacerbated due to smoke and dust,” Dr Young said. “People in communities affected by bushfires can take precautions by avoiding vigorous exercise outside especially if you have asthma, diabetes, heart disease or a breathing-related condition.”

She noted that heightened temperatures could also be dangerous, regardless of your physical condition.

“Even if you’re fit and healthy, heat related illness can lead to serious illness and even death, so it is vital for everyone to take precautions,” she said. “If you have an air conditioner at home, turn it on and use it in a recirculate mode. Ensure you are drinking plenty of fluids and staying cool by taking cool showers, soaking feet in water or wearing a wet bandana or washer around your neck.”

She also urged people to check on elderly neighbours or relatives and to seek medical advice if you or a family member experienced any adverse reactions to the heat and smoke, such as shortness of breath, prolonged coughing or wheezing.

Meanwhile, Dr Richard Broome, the director of environmental health at New South Wales Health, warned that people with existing lung and heart conditions, including asthma, emphysema and angina, should be conscious that they would likely be more sensitive to the effects of the smoky environment.

“People with these conditions should avoid outdoor physical activity when there’s smoke around,” he cautioned.

Poor air quality can irritate the nose, eyes and throat (symptoms can include itchy or burning eyes, a runny nose headaches or a cough), cause shortness of breath, aggravate asthma and other respiratory conditions and even affect the heart and cardiovascular system. The Lung Foundation Australia issued a statement to those in bushfire-affected communities and surrounds that addressed the impact of prolonged exposure to poor air quality.

“It’s important for people living with a lung condition to look after themselves and be aware of extra pollutants in the air when smoke descends in their town or city following bush fires or hazard reduction burning,” the statement read.

“Bush fires are a threat in Australia all year round and controlled burning may be necessary in preparation for bush fire season. Therefore, it is important to remain aware of and be vigilant about the risks to your health, and what you can do to protect yourself.”

If you have an existing lung disease such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or asthma, reduced air quality may cause symptoms including wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing to worsen.

If you’re in an area affected by smoke and poor air quality and suffer from a lung condition, to protect your health you should where possible:

  • Avoid physical activity outdoors while smoke is in the area
  • Rest more frequently and keep away from the smoke
  • Follow your action plan and treatment advised by your doctor and keep your medicines close at hand
  • Close windows and doors to minimise smoke in your home
  • Switch your air conditioner (if you have one) to recycle or recirculate air
  • Have your emergency plan ready in the event of an evacuation or the loss of essential services (such as power loss) during bush fires
  • In extreme cases, use a face mask or respirator to keep out pollution.

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