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When the smoke from California's fires finally clears, it may leave behind more than the ashes of homes and communities. It may leave behind a whole group of people with asthma.
Medical experts says while the fires themselves won't cause the breathing condition, they may reveal the disease in those previously undiagnosed, as particles and toxic gases irritate mucous membranes and cause inflammation.
Those with allergies should pay particular attention, as some allergies heighten the risk of developing asthma. "In people with allergies [the fires] could tip that over into asthma," cautions says Dr. Michael Schatz, an allergist with Kaiser Permanente.
Doctors have suspected for years that forest fires aggravate heart and lung diseases. Until recently there were no hard data to support this theory. But a 2001 study of Montana hospital admission records by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that wood fire smoke poses a "serious public health threat."
The CDC measured and compared more than 2,000 medical records for patients with heart and lung problems among those who sustained varying degrees of exposure to smoke from forest fires. The results: Increases in hospital admission for respiratory and circulatory problems among residents in counties exposed to high levels of fire smoke.
Specifically, the CDC saw increases in coronary artery disease, congestive heart failure, stroke, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. These increases occurred most during the peak fire period, when pollutant levels were highest.
How to Protect Yourself
If you have heart or lung disease, doctors stress the need for extra caution. "People with asthma or other lung disease in the vicinity of the fires are most at risk," says Dr. Zab Mosenifar, a pulmonologist at the University of California-Los Angeles, Mt. Sinai.
The majority of those with smoke inhalation problems are those with underlying pulmonary problems like asthma, agrees Dr. David Hoyt, chair of surgery and chief of the Division of Trauma, Burn and Surgical Critical Care for the University of California-San Diego Medical Center. Critically ill patients may take up to two months to recuperate.
Mosenifar and other specialists offer this advice on how to stay safe.
If you are on preventative medication for asthma, you may wish to temporarily increase your medication. "Patients on preventatives may want to double their dose," says Schatz. Talk with you doctor to see if this advice is recommended for you.
Wear a mask, but be aware that all masks are not created equal. "Simple painter's masks may not fit well enough to do very much good," says UCSD pulmonology specialist Dr. William Hughson. "They only filter about 50 percent. Heavier masks, which feel more like foam, filter as much as 95 percent."
Breathe less. The more air you breathe, the more particles you take in. "If you measure how much air we breathe in cubic boxes," Hughson says, "it's about 39 boxes per day. Physical exertion can double that amount."
Use air filters in your home. A 1999 CDC study found people who used a free standing HEPA air filter in their home during a nearby forest fire suffered fewer respiratory symptoms than those who did not use a filter.
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