Years of built up leaf litter, high temperatures and fierce winds have conspired to create the worst bushfires in New South Wales in more than a decade.

The number of homes lost is estimated to be in the hundreds in the Blue Mountains region alone. On the Central Coast and near Newcastle homes have also been destroyed with reports one elderly man lost his life in Wyong while trying to save his home.

The fires have prompted NSW Health to issue a health warning to those with lung and heart disease to closely monitor their symptoms.

“Bushfires can result in a large amount of smoke particles in the air, even great distances from the fires,” Professor Wayne Smith, Director Environmental Health Branch, NSW Health said.

“Particle levels are likely to be higher outdoors than indoors, so people sensitive to fine particles should limit the time they spend outside.”

These particles can cause a variety of health problems, such as itchy or burning eyes, throat irritation or runny nose and aggravate existing illnesses including bronchitis, emphysema and asthma.

“Fine particles can also irritate the lungs of healthy adults, so it is best to avoid any prolonged outdoor exercise” Professor Smith said.

The Australian Medical Association (AMA), has been advising the government on how to tackle the problem of increased frequency of extreme weather events in Australia.

In its submission to a senate standing committee on Environment & Communications earlier this year, the AMA highlighted how the effects of increased air pollution from bushfire could also impact on respiratory disease among populations that are not directly affected by fire.

“Bushfire can damage local infrastructure, lead to the contamination of water supplies, and disrupt the delivery of health services. Long-term health consequences include post-traumatic stress, depression and anxiety,” the report states.

The AMA also said that extreme weather has the potential to magnify health inequities, and exacerbate the strain on health services in rural and remote regions.

The issue of air pollution and the risks it poses to humans is a serious one. A study published in The Lancet this week reports a link between air pollution and low birth weight.

European researchers found that exposure to a 5 microgram per cubic meter increase in concentration of particulate matter during pregnancy was associated with an 18 per cent increase in the risk for low birth weight.

Further information on maintaining health during bushfires can be found here.

For more information on local air quality forecast and hourly air quality updates, visit the Office of Environment and Heritage website.