Every year, the fire service respond to between 45,000 and 60,000 bushfires in Australia. And data shows that bushfires are getting worse. For example, during 2019 to 2020s “Black Summer,” up to 83 million acres burned, making this one of the worst fire seasons recorded. With that, more families are faced with the immediate and long-term fallout, including exposure to dangerous bushfire smoke. That is why paediatrics experts note that ​bushfire smoke is a “growing threat to vulnerable children.” Here is what you need to know to help keep your children safe from wildfire smoke.

What makes bushfire smoke so dangerous for children?

The smoke from bushfires contains teeny particles from the plants, trees, vehicles, homes, buildings, and everything else they burn. This adds up to a whole lot of unsavory and unhealthy material floating in the air, waiting to be inhaled. In fact, it is thought that wildfire smoke might be 10 times as toxic as air pollution from burning fossil fuels! Short-term exposure to bushfire smoke can trigger coughing and asthma attacks in children. And repeated exposure may even reduce a child’s lung function.

Here is why bushfire smoke is especially dangerous for kids:

  • Microscopic particles: Bushfire smoke consists of what is called particulate matter, which is a microscopic mix of solid and liquid droplets, containing hundreds of different chemicals that can travel deep into the lungs and bloodstream.

  • Vulnerable lungs: Children’s lungs are still developing, which means poor air quality can have a long-term impact on their growth. Children’s airways are small, so it does not take much wildfire-induced inflammation to cause damage.

  • Subpar filtration: It is thought that children’s noses are unable to filter dangerous particles in bushfires as effectively as grownups’ noses, which allows more particles can get into their lungs.

  • Increased air intake: Children breathe faster than adults, they take in more air for their body size than adults, and they tend to be more active outdoors—all of which leads to more exposure to dangerous bushfire smoke.

Is bushfire smoke dangerous to babies and toddlers?

Yes! Wildfires particles are roughly 10 times more harmful on children’s respiratory health than particles from other sources—and this is especially true for children aged 0 to 5 years old, according to a 2021 study in the journal Pediatrics. Plus, earlier studies in America found there was a 70% increase in ER visits for respiratory issues during wildfire season for children aged 0 to 4.

Researchers note that even limited exposure to bushfire smoke could lead to chronic health issues.

How can bushfire smoke affect children?

Even short-term exposure to bushfire smoke can cause irritation and swelling in a child’s airways, which can impact their breathing and cause other distressing respiratory symptoms, like coughing and asthma attacks.

Here are some common signs and symptoms of bushfire smoke inhalation in children:

  • Bobbing head (Babies might do this to help keep airways open.)

  • Burning or stinging of the nose, throat, and eyes

  • Chest tightness or pain

  • Coughing

  • Congestion

  • Decreased activity

  • Exacerbating asthma symptoms

  • Dizziness

  • Fast or laboured breathing

  • Fatigue

  • Grunting (Babies might do this to help keep airways open.)

  • Flaring asthma symptoms

  • Pallor of skin (pale)

  • Retraction (when a baby pulls their chest in at the ribs)

  • Runny nose

  • Sneezing

  • Using rescue meds more than about every four hours (for kids with asthma)

  •  Wheezing

In addition, research shows that repeated and/or early exposure to bushfire smoke can negatively affect a child’s heart, lung, and immune system health over their lifetime.

Is bushfire smoke harmful when pregnant?

Yes! Red Nose recommends all pregnant individuals actively avoid—or at the very least, limit exposure to—bushfire smoke as much as possible. During pregnancy, you naturally breathe more air in and out (aka increased respiration) and have a reduced lung capacity, which makes you especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of bushfire smoke. Research has shown that exposure to heavy metals and industrial solvents found in wildfire smoke can be harmful to foetal development and put you at an elevated risk of low birth weight and preterm birth. For example, over a five-year span in California, as many as 7,000 preterm births were likely linked to wildfire smoke exposure, according to a 2022 report in the journal Environmental Research. The study went on to note that as little as one day of wildfire smoke exposure in pregnancy may raise the risk of preterm birth.

Protecting Children from Bushfire Smoke

If you live in an area where there is a history of bushfires, then your family needs a disaster plan that includes having a bushfire disaster kit at the ready at all times. (Here is some info on how to prep your kit.) Of course, if a bushfire is burning near you, evacuate as soon as authorities recommend you do so.

In the meantime, here are some ways to help keep your child safe from bushfire smoke:

  • Stay inside. When the outdoor air is dangerous, stay in as much as possible.

  • Filter your air. If possible, clean your indoor air with a portable air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter. (Make sure your purifier does not produce ozone.) Another option: If you have central air, make sure you are using a filter rated MERV13 or higher. (Minimum Efficiency Reporting Values, or MERVs, illustrates an air filter’s ability to capture particles.)

  • Use fans. If a bushfire occurs during a heat wave, keep those windows closed and use fans or air conditioning on “recirculate air” setting to cool off. If neither are an option, find a local heat refuge.

  • Do not do these activities. Avoid cooking on the stove, hoovering, smoking, vaping, burning candles, spraying aerosol products, all of which can worsen your indoor air.

  • Dust. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), wiping up dust with a damp cloth can help keep particles out of the air.

  • Wear the right mask. If you need to venture out, know that cloth masks are ineffective when it comes to protecting children from wildfire smoke. However, well-fitted medical masks—or N95 respirators—can help protect children over the age of 2.

  • Turn on this car feature. If you are driving to a safe location, keep windows closed and use the “recirculate air” setting in your car.

  • Keep an eye on the Air Quality Index (AQI). When the AQI is greater than 150, kids need to remain indoors whenever possible.

  • Wash clothes. If you have been outdoors, change into something clean when you get home. That is because smoky air particles can cling to clothing.

When to Call Yout Healthcare Provider About Bushfire Smoke Exposure

If you are worried about bushfire smoke exposure, do not hesitate to call your child’s paediatrician at any time! But make sure you reach out to a healthcare professional if your child…

  • Has trouble breathing

  • Is very sleepy

  • Will not eat or drink

  • Experiences shortness of breath

  • Has a persistent cough

  •  Experiences other symptoms that do not go away


More Safety Tips:

    View more posts tagged, health & safety

    Have questions about a Happiest Baby product? Our consultants would be happy to help! Submit your questions here.

    Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for babies. It is important that, in preparation for and during breastfeeding, mothers eat a healthy, balanced diet. Combined breast- and bottle-feeding in the first weeks of life may reduce the supply of a mother's breastmilk and reversing the decision not to breastfeed is difficult. If you do decide to use infant formula, you should follow instructions carefully.