In recent days, even people far away from the fires have been impacted by the smoke.
Vicki Kotsirilos AM, a practising general practitioner, has been inundated with patients suffering from a wide range of problems as a result of the fires. The commonest concerns, even in healthy people, include irritation of the eyes, sinus problems, runny nose, sore and itchy throat and cough.
“I have also seen healthy people develop chest tightness, difficulty breathing, asthma and wheeze for the first time from exposure to the smoke,” Dr Kotsirilos told Neos Kosmos, adding that people with pre-existing heart and lung disease such as asthma and emphysema may get aggravation of their heart or lung disease with more frequent attacks of higher severity.
“Bushfire smoke reduces air quality and may affect people’s health,” she says. “The larger particles contribute to the visible haze; the finer particles called Particulate Matter 2.5 (PM2.5) which means particulate matter of less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter, are more harmful to health. These particles are inhaled by the lungs and can enter deeper into the lungs and be absorbed into the blood stream affecting other organs of the body.”
People can suffer from a range of problems, from shortness of breath all the way to a heart attack. Apart from respiratory problems, Dr Kotsirilos warns of psychological and other physical problems that Australians are currently noticing. She talks about the impact that staying indoors may have on some people who lead active lives, while more serious mental health issues may be triggered. “We may experience lowered moods or anxiety,” she said. “Many people are feeling fear – not knowing when the fires will end – or they have suffered stress from worry, loss of a holiday property, or their farm or a loved ones from fires. Many people who have been displaced by the fires need to find temporary homes and may suffer financial stress.”
She worries about young people who are concerned about their future, especially in regards to climate change.
Her advice is to stay calm and relax. “Eat well, rest, aim to sleep well, stay close to family or friends, and when the air quality improves, consider gentle outdoor exercise,” she said. “The main advice is to stay indoors with windows or doors closed and use air conditioning to ‘recycle’ air to avoid outside air from coming indoors. When the air quality outside improves, open your windows and doors to circulate fresh air indoors,” she said. “Air purifiers can be helped for clearing air quality indoors but they are expensive and not all products are useful,” she said.
She advises less strenous exercise and the use of a well-fitted P2 mask available at local pharmacies for when the air quality is poor.
The good news is that most of the effects are temporary especially for those who protect themselves.