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More people seeking medical care and advice for breathing issues amid hazardous air quality

Portland Metro health care providers tell KGW they’ve seen an increase in patients experiencing breathing difficulties and seeking care.

Hazardous air conditions stretch far beyond the flames all across the West Coast. California's governor made a grim comparison when it comes to the impact it's having on our lung health.

“The air we're breathing right now is equivalent to smoking 20 packs of cigarettes. [It] is profound and consequential,” California Governor Gavin Newsom said.

The air quality in Oregon ranges mostly from dangerous to hazardous and has for days on end.

The air is more than eerie. It's a real health concern. Area hospitals and clinics are seeing more and more people coming in with breathing issues and calling with questions.

Emergency departments and clinics across Oregon Health and Sciences University (OHSU), which includes OHSU Hospital, Adventist Health and Hillsboro Medical Center have seen an increase in patients experiencing breathing difficulties.

OHSU anticipate that these cases may continue to increase over the coming days, or even weeks until conditions improve.

It’s the same for Kaiser Permanente Northwest. The health group is encouraging video-first virtual care. Urgent care and emergency rooms are fully staffed this weekend as they see an influx of patients with lung and heart concerns.

Kaiser Permanente Northwest Pulmonologist Dr. Joshua Filner says air quality issues are common during wildfires, however, he says this year, it's "off the scale."
Once the air gets this bad, he says, it's not just an issue for people with underlying health conditions. People who are otherwise healthy are at risk

“Here we're in the 400-500 ranges. That's when we expect to see normal people starting to have some of those same problems: chest pain, chest tightness, dizziness, just feeling fatigued, all those sorts of symptoms,” Dr. Filner said. “We would expect most people who are outside for any length of time to feel kind of bad.”

If you're experiencing any of those symptoms start with a virtual appointment, Filner said. However, if you can't catch your breath seek emergency help.

Parents should be extra mindful of younger kids as well. Their lungs are still developing and are more susceptible to smoke.

If your child does not want to eat, is unusually sleepy or unresponsive, Filner says it is time to get emergency help.

Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system and make you more prone to lung infections, including the virus that causes COVID-19.

“When we inhale a lot of smoke or other components, other chemicals that irritate the lungs…the body and the lungs start to lose some of their defenses. So, we do become more susceptible to viruses like COVID,” American Lung Association Spokesman Dr. Afif El-Hasan said.

So, what can you do to protect yourself?

  • Stay indoors with the house sealed up. Keep your windows and doors closed.
  • Put damp towels down under doors and in other areas where the outside air might leak in.
  •  If you have an air conditioner, make sure it's on the recirculate setting. That way you're moving air already inside the home, instead of pulling outside air into the room. 
  • Air purifiers are a great option too. However, not everyone can afford or has access to one.

If you have central HVAC, you can also install a high-efficiency filter, MERV 13 or higher. Run the system's fan as often as possible to get the most out of the filter.

For more guidance check out this link from the EPA.

“If you have any kind of forced air system you can run your furnace though it’s filtered. The best air filter that you can attain; that will actually work just as well as an air conditioner in terms of purifying the air,” Filner said.

If that's not an option, there are ways to make an air purifier using a filter and box fan inside your home.

“Box fan filtration units should never be left unattended. While these units might improve indoor air quality, their impact on the spread of COVID-19 in shared spaces is unknown. Public health officials who provide information about DIY box fan filtration units should include in their messaging that there is no evidence that DIY box fan filtration units control the spread of COVID-19 and that people who use these units to improve indoor air quality should continue to take precautions to slow the spread of COVID-19,” the CDC says.

Many health officials equate the box fan filter to a band-aid to the air quality issues. Also, keep this INSIDE you house. Do NOT run it in a window.

Check out this link to an instructional video.

Dr. Filner says there are other simple things you can do to increase the quality of air in your home. Here are some of his tips:

  • Do not use aerosols.
  • Do not cook foods that generate a lot of smoke.
  • Do not use a gas stove.
  • Do not run a gas furnace.
  • Do not use wood or natural gas fireplaces.

“All those things contribute to worse air quality in the home and we don't always think about that in our day to day use, but right now that can make a big difference in terms of how breathable your space is,” Filner said.


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