Tahlequah Daily Press

January 9, 2013

Breathing easier: High-risk folks need precautions

Staff Writer

TAHLEQUAH — Anyone who’s ever seen a fish lying on a stream bank, mouth agape and gasping, can make a correlation between the fish and a human struggling to breathe polluted air.

Poor air quality impacts the ability to breath, and for individuals with pre-existing respiratory ailments, the quality of breathable air becomes even more important.

High-risk individuals with respiratory conditions – like asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease – may experience difficult breathing when air quality is poor. Airborne particles and ground-level ozone are two pollutants that present a threat to human health, according to The Breathing Association.

Ozone, or smog, can aggravate the respiratory system, causing a person to cough and experience throat irritation or a burning sensation in airways. This reduces lung function and may leave the individual with a feeling of tightness in the chest or shortness of breath that leads to wheezing.

Particulate matter, or particle pollution, is made up of microscopic solids or liquid droplets so tiny that these particulates can find their way deep into the lungs and create serious health problems.

Cherokee County Health Department officials say some people are at greater risk than others.

Ryan Callison, a director with the Cherokee Nation’s Environmental Division, said the air, water and pesticide division, in collaboration with the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality, monitors air quality on a daily basis from five different sites that generate data 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The information is sent to a computer statistical program that helps create the Environmental Protection Agency-mandated Air Quality Index report, which can be viewed online at www.airnow.gov.

“It can get pretty technical pretty quick, but in essence, what we’re looking at is, are we in attainment of the Clean Air Act? Are we attaining standards?” Callison said. “We’re making sure air quality is getting better and staying the same. Airnow.gov is more of a localized tool that’s beginning to become more prudent with folks who have pre-existing conditions or a condition that could be exacerbated by condition in air quality for the day.”

Callison said the two biggest areas of concern are particulate data and ozone data.

“When you see those types of things [the AQI report], it alerts folks who have aggravated medical conditions who will typically be more aware of what’s going on in that area,” said Callison. “[The AQI report] gives them an idea what the AQI is going to look like for tomorrow.”

The AQI report for Tuesday, Jan. 8, said the air quality was “good,” which means no dangerous levels of ozone, particulate matter or carbon monoxide were detected.

The CCHD recommends individuals who fall within the high-risk group stay informed about air quality.

Users of iPhones can download an air report app called the “State of the Air,” offered by the American Lung Association. Users simply enter their zip codes or use a map to get the current and next day’s air quality forecast, and depending on the level of criteria pollutants in the air, the app will offer health recommendations that may effect outdoor activity. People interested can learn more by going to www.lung.org.

Aside from monitoring air quality, understanding what might trigger an asthma or allergy attack is the first step to keeping these diseases in check, said Tahlequah City Hospital Cardiopulmonary Director Sandy Henry.

“It’s much better to control your asthma or allergies instead of it controlling you. Consult with your physician to devise a plan of treatment specifically for you; make sure your physician is aware of all medications you take, including over-the-counter,” she said. “Once you’ve determined what factors are most likely to pose a problem, usually by trial and error or testing for allergies, there are several things you can do to cope.”

Henry recommended checking local TV, newspaper or radio weather reports or the EPA website for daily AQI updates, and avoid triggers if possible. For those who must be exposed, she offered tips, including wearing a mask while mowing the lawn; making sure to properly ventilate your home; and lowering indoor humidity levels to less than 50 percent, which can be done by opening windows, using exhaust fans or a dehumidifier.

It’s also important to replace carpets with hard surface flooring; don’t allow smoking in the residence; wash bed linens weekly to kill dust mites; keep the residence free of cockroaches and rodents, as their droppings can trigger asthma; keep all pets off furniture; heat the residence with an alternative to wood; and avoid breathing in cold air in the winter by placing a scarf over the mouth and nose.

W.W. Hastings Hospital Infection Preventionist Jennifer Tredway concurs on the importance of practicing preventive measures for good air quality and presenting a smoke-free, mold-free environment where pets are not permitted. Scheduling regular air-quality testing and inspections are also suggested, she said.

“For those sensitive to air quality, doctors recommend patients avoid tobacco smoke, smoke from wood-burning stoves; keep pets out of sleeping areas; check furnace and heating units annually; fix water leaks promptly; and reduce mold, dust mites and cockroaches in their home,” said Tredway.

People with respiratory conditions like asthma need to use medication that eases underlying inflammation of the lungs, said Henry.

“People who take controller medications tend to have fewer or lower severity flare-ups when they are exposed to triggers. Bronchodilators are another type of asthma drug used to expand constricted airways and relieve symptoms, such as shortness of breath or coughing,” she said. “If you are using a bronchodilator all the time to treat symptoms, it’s a sign your asthma isn’t under control, and you should be taking controller medication daily.”

Henry said in addition to taking controller medications, such as Singulair or Azmacort, people with asthma should also carry a rescue inhaler like Albuterol, which is a common bronchodilator.