Western wildfires causing respiratory distress, irritation

Friday , August 23, 2013 - 12:03 AM

Fire crews battle the State Fire on the Utah/Idaho border which reached 11,000 acres on Saturday...

Jamie Lampros

Local doctors are seeing more patients with respiratory distress resulting from bad air generated by dozens of Western wildfires.

Dr. Douglas Anderson, an Ogden Clinic ear, nose and throat specialist said he is seeing an increase in patients with irritated, teary eyes, congestion and increased cough and nasal damage. He said the soot and particles from the fires, pollution and allergens are affecting people of all ages.

Dr. Douglas Jones, an allergist with Rocky Mountain Asthma, Allergy and Immunology in Layton, said he has also seen an increase in patients presenting with respiratory problems because of the fires, including himself.

“The first patient I saw was myself,” Jones said. “I started coughing and wheezing and had to increase the dosage of my asthma medication.”

Colby Mitchell, an Ogden Clinic physician assistant, said he has also seen an increase in patients complaining of asthma, coughs and respiratory symptoms during the past several weeks.

Brady Tucker, a physician assistant at Tanner Clinic in Layton, said when the air quality decreases because of fires, pollution and inversions, his clinic commonly sees an influx in patients complaining of breathing difficulty.

“Patients with any underlying chronic lung conditions, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, tend to notice that their symptoms are more difficult to control when the air quality is poor. They will complain of increasing shortness of breath, chest tightness and constriction, wheezing, cough or just generally feel like they cannot breath as well.”

A series of major fires in Utah during the past month has burned thousands of acres of forest and range lands, destroyed homes and overtaxed Western firefighting crews.

“When the air quality is poor, it can especially affect those with heart, asthma and other lung conditions,” Anderson said. “It also affects people who don’t typically experience congestion and other sinus problems. When you have bad lungs already, and your lungs are performing poorly, it affects the heart and compounds other health problems.”

In addition, Anderson said, children with asthma or heart conditions should be monitored carefully during recess and other outdoor activities.

Tucker also said people who spend a significant amount of time outdoors exposed to bad air, especially those who exercise outdoors, may notice they become tired and out of breath sooner than usual, and depending on the severity of air quality and proximity to the source, may experience irritation or a scratchy feeling in their throat, itchy, red, irritated dry eyes, the feeling of not being able to breath normally, wheezing and a cough that can last from days to weeks.

McKay-Dee Hospital emergency room manager Kathy Calton said people with chronic conditions should limit their outdoor activities, especially if they live near the fires.

“If they are prescribed medications, such as inhalers, they need to keep them nearby at all times, so that if they do have problems, they can address them immediately.”

Calton said if the fires continue, the hospital may start seeing more people whose regular regimen is no longer effective.

Smoke is made up of a complex mixture of gases and fine particles produced when wood and other organic matter burns, according to airnow.gov. The tiny particles can make their way into your eyes and respiratory system, causing burning eyes, runny nose and a variety of illnesses. Fine particles also can cause complications in people with chronic heart and lung diseases and even are linked to premature deaths in people with these conditions.

All health care specialists encourage people to stay indoors as much as possible, and to exercise indoors.

“If they have to be outdoors, medications may be necessary to control symptoms,” Jones said. “They should call their doctor to get help before it turns into something worse. I increase my asthma medication right away and have not had any further problems since last week.”

Another health risk on top of smoke from the fires, said Mitchell, is the heat, especially if people are working outdoors.

“When you add heat to the pollution, it can exacerbate any illness you have,” he said. “If possible, try to do some of your work in the early mornings or late evenings. After you have been exposed to the air outside, it is also a good idea to take a shower and rinse the pollution and other particles from your skin.”

All of the health specialists advise people to check the daily air-quality and allergen reports, even if it looks nice outside.

“Air quality tends to be worse in July, but it was late this year due to fire season starting later than usual,” Mitchell said. “Inversions can also affect people in the winter. The difference is in the summer you also have the pollens that you compound with the smoke.”

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