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Bushfires: How To Cope With Smoke Inhalation

Bushfire smoke inhalation

The massive scale of the current bushfire crises has shocked Australians and left the entire country in a total state of devastation.

To date, more than 1.2 million hectares have been burnt and 244 homes destroyed by the Victorian bushfires alone.

Considering what our country is currently undergoing, it’s important all Aussies know how to properly manage and provide First Aid for smoke inhalation to prevent any future complications or in some cases death.

CFA provides online diagrams to help you assess your property location and risk of bushfire. More information about how to plan and prepare for fires can be found here.

Smoke Inhalation

Inhalation of smoke can reduce the amount of oxygen getting to the lungs and also cause swelling and burning of the airway. Smoke inhalation occurs when you breathe in the products of combustion during a fire. Combustion results from the rapid breakdown of a substance by heat (more commonly called burning).

People exposed to smoke from a fire can breathe in enough smoke to cause future medical problems. This usually occurs with fires in enclosed spaces, e.g. inside buildings, but can also happen with prolonged exposure to smoke from bushfires.

Whether it’s a bush or house fire, if you’re exposed to an excessive amount of smoke or other toxic fumes, you are at risk of suffering from debilitating smoke inhalation conditions or in extreme conditions; asphyxiation.

Fires are caused by a number of factors and can occur almost anywhere, so it’s important that all Victorians know and understand how to provide First Aid for smoke inhalation to minimise the damage and stress caused by overexposure to smoke.

First Aid Management For Smoke Inhalation

An smoke inhalation injury are acute injuries to your respiratory system and lungs that must always be considered a life-threatening emergency. Ensure the patient receives medical help as soon as possible.

Warning: It may be some hours before the effect of inhaling toxic fumes interferes with a person's breathing.

  1. Follow DRSABCD
  2. Remove casualty from smoke or toxic exposure if safe and/or possible or to a more ventilated, open space
  3. Sit casualty upright and loosen clothing around the neck/airways
  4. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance
  5. If you are trained in oxygen administration and have access to an oxygen delivery system, administer to casualty
  6. If the casualty stops breathing, provide CPR
  7. If the casualty is having difficulty breathing (wheezing), provide a reliever inhaler (puffer) if you have access to one

What Are The Dangers Of Smoke Inhalation And Other Toxic Fumes?

Inhaling smoke, gas or toxic fumes can decrease the supply of oxygen to the lungs, burn the airways and cause the onset of a respiratory emergency. Prolonged exposure to toxic fumes such as bushfire smoke is a possible health risk that can affect even healthy people as warned by the Australian Medical Association (AMA). AMA Vice President and respiratory physician, Dr Chris Zappala, said there is a concern for a small group of people with undiagnosed asthma as Australia heads into never-seen-before bushfire durations.

Toxic fumes such as carbon monoxide is commonly encountered and harmful to inhale. The household gas can be found in many home appliances such as a stove or heating device.

Unfortunately, carbon monoxide has no taste or smell and is invisible so it’s imperative to always ensure devices that run off the gas are not faulty or leaking. If there is a flue leak from one of these devices the carbon monoxide levels in a room can become dangerously high which can cause unconsciousness and even death if in a confined, unventilated space.

Other substances to avoid inhaling include: burnt plastic, paint, thinners, petroleum products and adhesives. These products are toxic and if in a poorly ventilated space can cause unconsciousness and death.

Australian Fire Statistics

In Victoria, the fire danger period typically begins in late November and continues until May. Throughout this time grass, land and bushfires are at an increased risk of occurring and combusting whilst house fires are generally at risk all year round.

This year, we have experienced the worst bushfires ever recorded in Australian history, with NSW officially named in a state of emergency and Victoria in a state of disaster!

At least 24 people so far have been killed – including three volunteer firefighters – and more than 6.3 million hectares (63,000 sq km or 15.6 million acres) of bush, forest and parks have been burnt. Additionally, millions of wildlife have perished, including birds, mammals and reptiles.

Preventative Measures For Smoke Inhalation

Children, the elderly and people who suffer from asthma or heart disease are more susceptible to toxic fume and smoke inhalation so it’s important they take the appropriate precautionary measures:

  • If there is smoke circulating the area you are in, but the fire or cause is not a danger, remain indoors and seal any points of entry
  • If you must run an air conditioner when your building is surrounded by smoke, change the settings to ‘recycle’ to minimise smoke access inside
  • Putting on a P2 or N95 mask can help but it is best to remain indoors – note the mask will not provide the intended level of protection unless worn correctly. Refer to the below instructions for guidance on fitting the mask.

How to put on and fit check a P2 or N95 mask

Follow these instructions from the Queensland Government for guidance on fitting the mask.

Note: Different P2 and N95 masks may vary slightly, so always follow the manufacturer's instructions and warnings.

For a good seal between the mask and the wearer’s face, wearer's should shave beards before using the mask, as protection may not be effective if they have facial hair.​

 

Before it develops into a life-threatening condition, smoke inhalation can cause a range of uncomfortable and debilitating symptoms which are stressful to endure. The tightness in the chest and inability to catch a breath can be a terrifying experience for anyone.

Whether it’s a child, adult or an elderly person who is battling with smoke inhalation symptoms, the comfort and stress relief that a First Aid trained individual provides is incomparable in this time of need; not to mention minimising the symptoms they experience.

By knowing how to provide First Aid for smoke inhalation you can provide consolation, reduce symptoms and truly make a positive difference before the symptoms develop into a much larger health emergency.