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How smoke impacts health
Most healthy people tolerate brief smoke exposure quite well. Smoke is more likely to affect some people including:
- those with heart or lung conditions
- pregnant women
- young children
- the elderly.
Symptoms of smoke exposure – including bushfire smoke – can include:
- eye, nose and throat irritation
Exposure to smoke may be a risk because it can:
- trigger asthma
- worsen heart disease
- reduce visibility and road safety.
The smaller the smoke particles, the greater the potential health impact may be.
What to do when it’s smoky outside
If you see or smell smoke outside, you should stay inside. But only if it’s safe to do so.
- keep your windows and doors shut
- switch your air conditioner to ‘recirculate’
- take a break from the smoky conditions – for example, visit a friend or go to a large air-conditioned location
- air out your house when the smoke clears
- look out for children, older people, and others at risk
- keep pets inside with clean water and food. Keep pets’ bedding inside if possible.
When it’s smoky, take care of your health, especially if you're sensitive to air pollution. You can do this by:
- reducing physical activity
- following your treatment plan if you have a heart or lung condition
- following your asthma action plan
- seeing your doctor or calling NURSE-ON-CALL on 1300 606 024 if you’re worried about your symptoms
- calling 000 if you experience chest tightness or difficulty breathing.
If you're in an area impacted by a bushfire, follow your bushfire plan.
For information about a specific fire or emergency incident, visit VicEmergency.
Face masks and P2 masks
It’s better to stay indoors away from the smoke, unless you can’t avoid being outside.
Ordinary paper dust masks, handkerchiefs and bandannas don’t filter out fine particles from smoke.
Special face masks called P2 masks filter smoke and give your lungs better protection. You can buy them from most hardware stores.
Before wearing a P2 mask, you should understand that:
- they can be hot and uncomfortable to wear
- they can make it harder for you to breathe normally
- if the seal around the face is poor, the mask won’t work as well
- if you usually have facial hair, your face should be clean shaven to get a good seal
- the masks don’t filter out gases like carbon monoxide.
If you have an existing heart or lung condition, seek medical advice before using a P2 mask.
This fact sheet from the Department of Health and Human Services Victoria has more information about smoke masks.
Pets, animals and smoke
Keep pets and animals inside with clean water, food and bedding if possible.
Ash and soot on animals may impact their health when they groom themselves. Wash them as you normally would with pet shampoo to remove anything covering their fur or feathers.
Signs of smoke inhalation in animals can include:
- faster breathing rate or difficulties with breathing.
Contact a local vet if you have concerns about the health of your pets.
Contact the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) on 136 186 if you have concerns about the health of your animals.
Don’t use water from your rainwater tank for drinking or bathing if it looks, smells or tastes unusual. This includes using rainwater for your pets.
More information about bushfires and your private drinking water supply is available from the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).
For information on rainwater tank quality, contact:
How to assess air quality and health risks
EPA measures air quality at different areas around the state. You can check current air quality at EPA Airwatch.
If you don’t have access to AirWatch, you can look at landmarks. They become harder to see when there’s smoke in the air.
To visually assess air quality:
- Estimate the distance from you to a landmark that’s just visible (you can just see it).
- Use this estimated distance and the table below to identify the air health category and the advised activity levels based on your sensitivity to smoke.
Activity levels based on visibility, air health category and smoke sensitivity
|Visible landmark||Air health category||Activity levels – people sensitive to smoke||Activity levels – everyone else|
|About 20 km||Good||It's a good day to be outside.||It's a good day to be outside.|
|About 10 km||Moderate||It's okay to be outside but watch for changes in air quality around you.||Normal activity.
|About 5 km||Poor||Reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity.||It's okay to be outside but watch for changes in air quality around you.|
|About 1.5 km||Very poor||Avoid physical activity outdoors.||Reduce prolonged or heavy physical activity.|
|Less than 1.5 km||Hazardous||If you can, stay indoors and keep physical activity levels as low as possible.||Avoid all physical activity outdoors.|
Factsheets about smoke and fire recovery
Includes languages other than English:
- Assessing health risk from smoke (publication 1742)
- Smoke and your health (publication 1743)
- Smoke and portable indoor air cleaners (publication 1809)
- Smoke and carbon monoxide from peat fires (publication 1831)
- Incident air monitoring (publication 1726)
- After a fire: asbestos hazards (publication 1719)
- After a fire: cleaning up a smoke-affected home (publication 1711)
- Disposal of bushfire waste (including perished stock) (publication 1738)
- Fact sheet: ash (publication 1724)
- Ash from copper chrome arsenate (CCA) treated timber (publication 1720)
- Fire retardants and health (publication 1721)
- Firewater run-off (publication 1722)
- Industrial fires (publication 1723)
For help with English, call the Translating and Interpreting Service on free call 131 450.
Read more about smoke
Watch our videos about smoke
Smoke is a mixture of different-sized particles, water vapour and gases. The biggest health threat from smoke comes from fine particles like Larry.
This is Larry. Larry is a PM2.5 fine particle. He and his mates live in smoke from fires.
He's not the only thing that lives there. Smoke is a mixture of particles, water vapor and gases. But Larry and his mates, well they're the biggest troublemakers.
You see, fine particles like Larry can cause some short-term or long-term effects on your respiratory or cardiovascular systems. That can mean big problems for your heart and lungs, especially if you have asthma or other lung conditions.
The effects of smoke exposure can vary. Health effects could be as simple as itchy eyes and a sore throat, that can also be something more serious. Because fire smoke can not only signal a threat to your safety, but also a risk to your health.
Some people are more sensitive to the effects of smoke exposure. People over the age of 65 years, smokers and people with pre-existing heart or lung conditions may experience adverse health effects earlier and at lower smoke concentrations than healthy people.
Larry's microscopic. That means he's tough to see.
To give you an idea of just how tiny he is, here's 40 Larrys playing side-by-side, along the width of a human hair.
But how could something so small, cause so much trouble? Well if you've had a kid, you'll know.
Because Larry and his friends are so small, they're prime culprits for getting into all the places they shouldn't be. They can get right down deep into your respiratory system and hang out in your lungs.
Larry irritates some people more than others. Kids up to 14, and adults over 65, smokers, pregnant women and people with a heart or lung condition can have a much tougher time putting up with Larry. Their symptoms can be worse at lower smoke concentrations.
Kids are also more at risk because their respiratory systems are still developing. They're often running around outside, and they breathe in more air per body weight than adults.
More air, means more Larrys.
Smoke can affect your health. To minimise the potential health impacts, everyone should avoid breathing in smoke.
So how do you keep Larry out of your lungs?
If you're not under threat from the fire, stay inside with the windows and doors closed and reduce your physical activity.
If you have a heart or lung condition including asthma, make sure you take your medications and follow your treatment plan.
Keep the air inside your home as healthy as possible. If you have an air conditioner, switch it to recirculate or reuse and reduce activities that affect indoor air quality, like smoking cigarettes, burning candles or vacuuming.
If your home is uncomfortable, take a break from Larry by visiting a friend or relative away from the smoke or visit an air conditioned
centre, like a library. Check that it's safe to go elsewhere before leaving.
And when there's a break in the smoke, open your windows and doors to get rid of any smoke inside the house.
See you later Larry.
Keep Larry out of your lungs.
Reviewed 19 February 2020