Increased haze, smoke can cause health concerns

UCHealth doctors discuss precautions for people at risk during increased AQI levels.
September 4th, 2017

With the hazy conditions across the Front Range increasing over the Labor Day weekend, UCHealth experts today discuss possible health risks and precautions people may want to take.

“People with lung and heart problems are specifically at risk for issues with all the smoke and the haze that’s out today,” said Dr. Allison Trop, an emergency room physician with UCHealth Memorial Hospital Central in Colorado Springs.

Map showing air quality index.
According to this Air Quality Index map, published by the Environment Protection Agency’s AirNow.org, Colorado was experiencing moderate (yellow) to unhealthy (red) AQI levels Monday afternoon.

On Sept. 3, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE) issued an “action day alert” starting at 4 p.m. for the Front Range urban corridor from El Paso County north to Larimer and Weld counties as ozone and fine particulate concentrations were expected to reach unhealthy ranges (101-150 Air Quality Index) for the “sensitive group” category. This group includes people with heart or lung disease, older adults and children. The alert continued into Labor Day with AQI reaching 145 by noon, according to the CDPHE.

Table showing air quality levels in various Colorado communities.
Source: CDPHE Air Quality Index.

Dr. Todd Bull, a pulmonologist with the Comprehensive Lung & Breathing Program at UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora, said the fine particulate matter – which reduces visibility and makes the air look dusty or hazy – is the biggest concern as it enters the lungs easily and can cause worsening shortness of breath, cough or oxygenation.

Trop and Bull stressed that people with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or emphysema, the elderly, younger children – those with asthma and chronic lung conditions – and chronic smokers should take certain precautions during these higher AQI levels, which include staying indoors and limiting excessive exertion.

“Avoid being out when it’s extremely hazy and foggy out with a lot of smoke in the air, as these can all be irritants that cause worsening of their cough and can even cause progression to more severe exacerbation of their already chronic conditions,” Trop said.

Signs you may be having problems:

“Certainly any significant coughing or increased difficulty breathing – feeling like you can’t get enough air – you should definitely seek medical attention,” she said.

People without underlying heart and lung conditions are safe to be outside at this time, Bull added.

“They’ll probably notice the difference, such as burning in the eyes, nose or upper respiratory track, but shouldn’t be concerned with short-term exposure. If you have an underlying lung, heart or respiratory public, that were you can get into trouble.”

Chest discomfort, wheezing and seasonal allergies made worse by the smoke are typical symptoms one may experience during high AQI levels, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

The UCHealth experts advise people to:

  • Take medications as prescribed. Don’t take more medication or take it more often than prescribed because of the worsening conditions. Call your physician if you require increased medication or experience increased symptoms.
  • If you have extreme shortness of breath, seek emergency care.
  • Stay indoors as much as possible and close windows.
  • Keep windows rolled up while driving.
  • Have air conditioning recirculating in the home rather than drawing in air from outside.
  • Limit or eliminate outdoor exercise until the air clears.

“People need to watch their bodies and listen to how they’re feeling,” Trop said. “If you’re out and you feel like you’re having some trouble more so than usual, you may have to adjust those activities, stay in or find some alternative fun to have on Labor Day.”