Living Well: Summer heat, wildfires can aggravate breathing problems
With wildfire season upon us and a 170-acre fire already burning near the border of Routt and Moffat counties, anyone with breathing or respiratory issues should pay close attention to air quality.
Wind, pollen and dust are often the root cause of summer breathing problems in the high country, which can turn especially serious for those suffering from respiratory conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma. These problems can be exacerbated due to wildfire smoke.
Symptoms might include a tight chest, trouble taking a deep breath, tickling or burning in the lungs, whistling from the lungs (wheezing), coughing and uncontrolled coughing.
Anyone with known breathing conditions should avoid outdoor exposure as much as possible and take respiratory medications as prescribed, said Anessa Kopsa, cardiopulmonary manager and respiratory therapist at Memorial Regional Health.
Weather’s effects on the lungs
Hot weather can aggravate respiratory disorders like COPD and it can trigger asthma symptoms, according to the American Lung Association. The correlation has to do with the airway inflammation that occurs when breathing in hot air.
“If you know you have problems breathing when it is smoky outside from fires, please stay inside if you can and make sure you take your respiratory and other medications as prescribed,” Kopsa said. “Asthma and COPD attacks can come on quickly. If your rescue inhalers are not working, seek medical help — don’t wait until you are in severe distress.”
- Check air quality reports for the region at http://www.colorado.gov/airquality.
- Listen and watch for news or health warnings about smoke. Check the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index (AQI) at AirNow.gov.
- Keep indoor air as clean as possible if you are advised to stay indoors. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside. If you do not have an air conditioner and it is too warm to stay inside with the windows closed, seek shelter in a designated evacuation center or away from the affected area.
- Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also pollutes the air.
- Prevent wildfires from starting. Prepare, build, maintain and extinguish campfires safely. Follow local regulations if you burn trash or debris. Check with your local fire department to be sure the weather is safe enough for burning.
- Follow the advice of your doctor or other healthcare provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease. Consider evacuating if you are having trouble breathing. Call your doctor for advice if your symptoms worsen.
- Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper “comfort” or “dust” masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
- Evacuate from the path of wildfires. Listen to the news to learn about current evacuation orders. Follow the instructions of local officials about when and where to evacuate.
Pulmonary services offered at MRH
- Pulmonary Function Testing (breathing tests) to diagnose asthma, COPD and other breathing conditions.
- Asthma education by a certified Asthma Educator to help you live an active life with the disease.
- Education on how to properly take respiratory medications.
- Treatment of acute and chronic respiratory episodes in the emergency room.
To schedule an appointment, call 970-826-2211.
People who are under the age of 18 or over the age of 65, and those with chronic heart disease or diabetes, are also at an increased risk for breathing complications due to smoky air. The American Lung Association suggests taking precautions such as staying indoors, rolling up car windows, protecting air inside the home by keeping windows, doors and fireplace dampers shut, avoiding outdoor exercise and never putting too much faith in dust masks.
Ordinary dust masks only filter out large particles, while masks that claim to filter out damaging fine particles may not fit properly or can be difficult to use for those with lung disease.
“These masks can make it more difficult for anyone to breathe and should only be used if you must go outside,” according to the American Lung Association. “Consult with your doctor before using a mask, especially if you have a lung disease.”
Kopsa also recommends drinking lots of water, avoiding long exposure to heat and wearing a mask or handkerchief if you must go out in smoky conditions.