Fires Flare Up Asthma and COPD Attacks

Summer heat leaves respiratory patients feeling the heat

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

The summer of 2011 is one for the record books. This hottest and driest summer in recent memory has led to many forest and home fires. These fires can lead to more asthma attacks and worsen respiratory conditions in those most sensitive in the population.

These sensitive groups include:

  • Children
  • Elderly citizens
  • People with allergies
  • People with asthma
  • Cystic fibrosis patients
  • Patients with all types of chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD)

When Smoke Gets In Your Eyes and Your Lungs

Outdoor air pollution complicated by smoke can definitely make asthma and other respiratory symptoms significantly worse. The top irritants from outside (classified as non-allergic triggers) for these respiratory illnesses include smog, smoke from fires, air pollution, cigarette smoke and paint fumes.

During times of heavy outdoor smoke the American Lung Association recommends that everyone should:

  • Refrain from exercising outside.
  • Avoid inhaling smoke, ashes, and particulate matter by staying indoors as much as possible
  • Ask your physician about using dust mask equipped with a HEPA filter when outside.
  • Pay special attention to children, as their respiratory systems inhale more smoke.
  • Close windows and vents while driving in the car.

For those in the most sensitive groups, the American Lung Association offers additional safeguards including:

  • Stay indoors altogether if possible and keep dampers in the fireplace shut.
  • Utilize air conditioners on a recirculation setting to avoid introduction of outdoor air.
  • If outdoors trips are absolutely necessary, breath through a damp cloth.
  • When a persistent cough, painful breathing, wheezing, dizziness, chest heaviness or light headedness develops, this is a medical emergency requiring immediate attention.
  • People with asthma should check with their physician to ensure access to drugs that help manage their symptoms.
  • Asthma patients should have and use their peak flow meter to help anticipate asthma attacks.
  • Patients on oxygen should contact their physician to ask if it is appropriate to adjust their oxygen intake.

Weather changes can also prompt asthma attacks.The changes that increase the risk of an asthma attack are falling temperatures, extreme humidity or very dry air.

Main Street Measures

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has published levels for the Air Quality Index (AQI) by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) used to alert citizens when certain groups may be affected by air pollutants including ozone and ozone particles. The amount of these pollutants are then categorized into an AQI value, which ranges from 0 to 500. The assigned numerical value then falls into one of the six EPA pre-established categories ranging from Good to Hazardous. 

Good, Moderate and Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups categories basically indicate that only the most sensitive in the population may be affected. The last three categories (Unhealthy, Very Unhealthy and
Hazardous) indicates the entire population may feel the effects of the poor air quality.

  1. When the AQI number is below 50, the air quality is quite good and poses little risk to anyone.
  2. When the AQI number is 51-60, it is deemed moderate indicating only the most sensitive should need to use caution.
  3. When the AQI number is 101-150, the general public isn't likely to be affected, but the sensitive groups should take reasonable precautions.
  4. When the AQI is 151-200, everyone may begin to feel health effects from the poor air quality.
  5. When the AQI is 201-300, it is considered to be very unhealthy with everyone susceptible to experiencing major health effect.
  6. When the AQI is over 300, emergency conditions are in effect and most people are likely to be affected.

Quick Relief for Asthma Attacks

Even when using long-term medication to manage asthma symptoms, sometimes flare-ups due to poor air quality occur. During these events, another type of inhaler is needed to provide quick relief. Short-acting beta2-agonists are the most common amendments to long-term medications during flare-ups.

Working Your Way Through Asthma and COPD

People with respiratory illnesses can also increase their risk of attacks by several occupations including:

  • Jobs entailing exposure to chemicals or industrial dust
  • Exposure to plants
  • Housecleaning
Review Date: 
September 20, 2011