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9 tips for keeping healthy in heavy smoke

A young woman picks a song as she runs with headphones in

When there's heavy smoke, is it safe to be outside?

A young woman picks a song as she runs with headphones in

Australia is currently experiencing one of the worst bushfire seasons in living memory. Cities along the east coast have been blanketed in thick smoke for days on end and meteorologists predict that in some populated areas, smoke haze won’t clear completely for several months.

Many of us are asking – is it safe to be outside?

Why is smoke a health risk?

Smoke is a mixture of water vapour, small particles and gases. What causes the most damage to our health are fine particles called PM2.5 (so called as they are smaller than 2.5 micrometres).

These particles are particularly damaging because they’re able to get deep into the lungs and stay there, with symptoms of smoke inhalation continuing for days after they’re inhaled.

How can you check the air quality in your local area?

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) publishes air quality information regularly in each state and territory. For local updates, check the EPA site for your state or territory, listed here.

There are also a number of apps you can use, such as AirRater.

Who’s at risk?

Once the air quality dips below a certain level, everyone is affected regardless of age or health. However, high risk category people should be particularly careful. This includes:

  • Young children

  • Older people

  • Pregnant women

  • People with heart or lung conditions such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic bronchitis

What are some signs you’re being affected?

Signs of smoke inhalation include itchy or burning eyes, runny nose, coughing and a sore throat.

People with asthma may experience wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing.

In healthy people, symptoms usually clear up once the air quality improves. However vulnerable people should monitor their symptoms for several days after the air has cleared and seek medical advice if they’re concerned.

Tips for staying healthy

1. Stay indoors

The best thing you can do on days when smoke haze and pollution is high is to stay indoors. Consider postponing outdoor events and, if possible, working from home and conducting meetings over the phone.

2. Ventilate your house (when safe)

Smoke particles can still get inside and it’s still important to ventilate your house to avoid a build-up of carbon monoxide. On clear days, be sure to open doors and windows to clear any remaining smoke particles.

For those with respiratory conditions, be sure to have at least 5 days of medication stocked up

3. Recycle air

If you can, set your air conditioner to ‘re-use’ or ‘recirculate’ indoor air.

4. Wear a mask

Cloth or simple paper masks won’t filter smoke particles, so be sure to get a proper P1 or P2 face mask, which are available at hardware stores. They won’t filter out gases, but masks properly fitted over the mouth and nose should filter out the more dangerous particles.

5. Use a portable air filter

Look for a HEPA filter or high-efficiency particulate air filter, according to experts from Macquarie University.

Filters are not always effective in large, open plan environments, so it may be better to use it in a small room with the door closed. Because bushfire smoke has caused unprecedented levels of fine particles in the air, portable air filters may not be able to clean the air completely.

If you’re making a DIY filter with a fan, be sure to attach an air filter that can filter out the small particulate matter associated with bushfire smoke. Get one that meets the HEPA standard – cheaper filters at your local hardware store may not meet that rating.

You can also cut indoor air pollution by reducing cigarette smoke, incense, candles and wood burning heaters.

A young girl cuddles her mum and dog

6. Leave the area

If you’re in the high risk category or you need a break for a few hours, consider visiting a friend or spending time in an air-conditioned building, such as a cinema or shopping centre.

7. Stock up on medication

For asthma sufferers or those with other respiratory conditions, be sure to have at least five days medication stocked up and follow your Asthma or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) Action Plan.

8. Modify your exercise routine

It’s tricky, because we still need to exercise and stay on top of our physical health during a crisis, however we need to weigh up it against the cost of exercising outdoors.

We breathe more when exercising because we need more oxygen, but this can exacerbate the effects of smoke inhalation, so consider exercising indoors if you can. People with heart and lung conditions should take particular care.

Be mindful that air quality varies over the course of a day. Recent evidence suggests that air quality has been better in the early morning and late at night, so those might be the best times to exercise outdoors and ventilate your house.

9. Monitor your mental health

The continuous smoky haze can be distressing, and a constant reminder that things are not ok. It can be helpful to remember that the smoke and news of the fires are affecting everyone and you’re not alone in feeling distressed. Talk to people close to you and in your community – we’re all in it together. If you’re concerned about lasting effects of smoke inhalation or symptoms are persisting, see your GP for personalised advice. If you’re experiencing strong wheezing, chest tightness and/or difficulty breathing you should call 000.

We’ve compiled a list of free mental health programs to help you reduce stress levels or manage anxiety or depression. Check out our article, 6 ways to get help for mental health – and you won’t have to pay a thing!

At nib, our thoughts are with everyone who has been impacted by the devastating bushfires happening across Australia. To help our members in bushfire-affected areas during this difficult time, we will be offering a three-month health insurance premium waiver. The waiver will cover 100% of premiums for eligible members and their families, to help them continue to manage their health and wellbeing during this testing time. For more information, please visit nib’s Disaster Relief Package page.

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