Staying healthy in the smoke haze this summer

Dr Helena Torpinski|General dermatology
17 December 2019


As our brave volunteers and firefighters continue to battle blazes from one end of the East Coast to the other, those of us living in coastal areas, including Sydney, are experiencing significant smoke haze and the powerful impact that these fires are having on air quality.

Whipping winds have fanned flames and distributed noxious particles far and wide.

We’ve all seen the FB photos and TV footage of swathes of unhealthy air stretching across our beautiful Sydney sky line, but towns up and down the coast are suffering equally.

The remoteness of the terrain and the exceptional drought conditions make fires hard to fight. So we are likely to go on experiencing these conditions for quite some time.

What smoke inhalation does

When inhaled, smoke and small particles, made up of water vapour, carbon monoxide and ash, can cause short term and long term damage to our respiratory systems. Smoke particles are very fine – 60 times smaller than the width of human hair – and they can lodge deeply in your lungs.

Smoke haze contains particles that can travel hundreds of km and, depending on winds, can continue to float around for days or weeks. So even on days that don’t seem so smoky, particles can still be present.

We’ve all seen what our cars and beaches look like covered in ash and dirt after the rain. That same residue is in the air we’re breathing, so take care and avoid exposing yourself to it more than you have to.

We are also in the middle of a terrible pollen season. The smoke particles can block the immune system from clearing other invaders like pollen and bacteria, making even healthy individuals more likely to get sick.

However, smoke haze can present special health hazards to children, older adults and those with chronic respiratory problems such as asthma, emphysema and heart failure.

How to stay healthy in a smoke haze

Stay inside. Nothing you’re doing is more important than protecting your health.

Use your air conditioning if you have it and recirculate indoor air. If the air inside is beginning to smell smoky, consider spending a few hours at a shopping centre or somewhere with robust air conditioning.

Asthmatics must ensure they have their medications with them and remember that, during the silly season, access to doctors and pharmacies will be limited. So plan ahead! Make sure you have enough medication to see you through.

If you are asthmatic and needing your Ventolin more than a couple of times a week, see your GP. You may need something more as backup through these smoky days. Talk about your updating your Asthma Action plan. Even if you see yourself as having grown out of your childhood asthma, remember others like you are being admitted to hospitals. Take early precautions that will allow you to be safe and enjoy the Christmas season without incident.

For the fitness freak who likes outdoor workouts: there is little health benefit in exercising outside in the smoke haze. You’re inhaling toxins and causing your lungs to suffer. Either find a well air conditioned gym for the Summer or find other ways to work out.

Each day, do your smoke haze due diligence:

  • check air quality reports to gauge how much time you need to spend indoors. Sometimes air quality improves through the day, so trips out should be postponed till the afternoon.
  • limit outdoor activities, specially with the kids. They are more at risk and less likely to be aware of the early signs of breathing issues. 
  • keep indoor air as clean as possible. Close windows and doors. Clean or replace your air conditioner filters. If you don’t have air con, consider air filtration units which may help.
  • asthmatics should check their medication levels and always keep meds handy. Ensure you have more than enough to see you through the holiday shut down periods, specially if smoke haze gets very bad for several days.
  • other cardiac and respiratory patients should see their GP early with any new or unusual symptoms.
  • don’t rely on ordinary masks for protection. They can’t filter the fine particles that cause the problems.

Take action early if you need help

Remember , we have never lived through smoke conditions like this before. We have never had such a high number of smoky days nor air quality so hazardous. This is something hospitals and medics are untried in managing and these are conditions that patients are unlikely to have encountered previously.

So if you are developing a persistent cough, wheezing or unusual shortness of breath, see your GP.

If you’re experiencing something more serious, don’t leave it too late to seek help. If an ambulance needs to be called, it may already be attending to others who have left it too late. Our emergency services will be stretched to their limits. If you are at high risk, have an action plan and monitor symptoms.

Your Christmas celebrations are important, but it’s not worth risking serious health outcomes just to stay a little longer or not cause trouble!

A word about pets and smoke haze

Watch for the same respiratory symptoms in pets and get them to the vet if you notice coughing or breathing problems.

Keep them inside as much as possible and limit exercise on very smoky days.

And it’s not just about your lungs!

Although human skin acts as a biological shield against chemical and physical pollutants, the prolonged and repetitive  exposure to high levels of pollutants may have profound negative effects on the skin.

So our recent increase in air pollution is having major effects on human (and pet) skin. This includes inflammatory and allergic skin conditions.

Particulate matter can irritate the skin and make it itchy.

It can also clog pores with a resultant increase in acne too.

So if your skin is suffering more that usual, we suggest:

  • rinse off after being outside,
  • wear loose, cotton clothing,
  • short tepid showers, avoid soaps and don’t over wash.

You may want to try antihistamines and a gentle moisturiser. Sunscreen also helps!

But if any symptoms are significant or worrying, see your GP

Your eyes are another part of the body that can be negatively affected during smoke haze times.

As tempting as it may be when it’s a fascinating broiling red, don’t look at the sun!

Just because it’s emitting less light and your protective reflexes are not screaming at you to close your eyes or look away, it doesn’t mean that the same amount of dangerous UV radiation isn’t hitting your retina as you stare, mesmerised in wonder. It will still damage your retina.

And finally, as with all our posts associated with the outdoors, keep an eye on the UV index and attend to the sunscreen, hat, protective clothing and sunglasses.

A final note for the 2019 holiday season

From everyone here at the clinic, we wish you and your loved ones a safe and happy holiday season.

Be sun safe, fire aware and make healthy choices for you and your family to ensure a fantastic 2020.

And to all our patients, thank you for your continuing to choose Neutral Bay Laser & Dermatology Clinic for your family and cosmetic dermatology. We look forward to serving you with best practice dermatology services and skin laser treatments in 2020.