USA Athens two hospitals havent seen any patients in their emergency rooms with respiratory complaints related to the smoky haze that has settled over the area as a result of the wildfires that continue burning in north Georgia, but St. Marys Hospital is seeing an increase in outpatient visits from people with pre-existing respiratory conditions.
Elsewhere in the state, however, including communities as close to Athens as Gainesville, state health officials say they have seen significant increases in the number of emergency room visits for asthma. In addition to Gainesville, hospitals in Dalton, Gainesville, Jasper and metro Atlanta were reporting increased asthma-related ER visits last week as smoke drifted over those areas.
Mark Ralston, public relations manager at St. Marys Hospital in Athens, said patients with asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are comign in more frequently for outpatient care.
Theyre just feeling it, he said. Its hard for them.
The state Department of Public Health told Georgia Health News that its not possible to determine with certainty that the ER visits across northern Georgia were attributable to smoke from the ongoing wildfires in north Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina. But, spokesman Nancy Nydam added, These data may be an indication of the smokes impact in worsening asthma and other respiratory conditions. Last week was Public Healths latest available data on ER use, determined from its surveillance system, she said.
An extended drought has led to dry conditions and greater risks of wildfires in much of the state. Smoky haze from ongoing fires continued to affect the north Georgia and metro Atlanta areas over the weekend and into this week, with no rainfall in the forecast for several days.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there were six wildfires still burning across the northern part of the state as of Monday, covering a total of 26,369 acres. Two of the fires the Rock Mountain blaze near Tate City, which has consumed more than 4,100 acres, and the Timber Ridge blaze near Tiger, which has covered, 850 acres are within 100 road miles directly north of Athens, while the rest of the fires are some distance away in northwest Georgia.
The air quality website AirNow listed the air quality index for Athens and the rest of northeast Georgia on Tuesday at between 101 and 150, which it considers unsafe for sensitive groups. According to AirNow, although the general public is not likely to be affected, people with heart and lung disease, older adults and children are at greater risk from the presence of particles in the air.
Piedmont Healthcare told Georgia Health News on Monday that its hospital in Jasper, Piedmont Mountainside, said the average number of patients seen in its emergency department with respiratory issues (per day) increased by 8 percent from September to October. But then those visits jumped by more than 50 percent in the first 14 days of November, Piedmont officials said.
A major concern in wildfires is fine particle pollutants, which are so tiny that lungs cant filter them, said June Deen of the American Lung Association of the Southeast. Its a very big problem, particularly for people who live near the fires themselves.
The likelihood of wildfires increases with prolonged droughts like the current one, she noted.
Paige Tolbert, chair of the Department of Environmental Health at Emory Universitys Rollins School of Public Health, said Monday that its research has found that in the past, on days when we have higher biomass burning, or wildfires, we do see increases in ER visits for respiratory outcomes.
These conditions include bronchitis, asthma, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Its really a public health burden, she said.
Wildfires are likely to increase with climate change, said Deen and Tolbert.
Jean OConnor, director of Chronic Disease Prevention at the state Department of Public Health, said in a statement that older adults are more susceptible to smoke because of their increased risk of heart and lung problems. Childrens airways are still developing and they breathe more air per pound of body weight than adults.
Smoke can irritate the eyes and airways, causing coughing, a scratchy throat, irritated sinuses, headaches, stinging eyes or a runny nose. People with heart disease might experience chest pain, palpitations, shortness of breath or fatigue. People with lung disease may not be able to breathe as deeply or as vigorously as usual, and they may experience symptoms such as coughing, phlegm, chest discomfort, wheezing and shortness of breath.
Public Health issued tips to stay healthy amid the wildfire smoke:
Use common sense. If it looks and smells smoky outside, limit outdoor activities such as yard work, exercise, children playing.
Pay attention to local air quality reports and news coverage related to smoke.
Keep indoor air as clean as possible if you are advised to stay indoors. Keep windows and doors closed. Run an air conditioner if you have one, but keep the fresh-air intake closed and the filter clean to prevent outdoor smoke from getting inside.
Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution. Burning candles, fireplaces, or gas stoves can increase indoor pollution. Vacuuming stirs up particles already inside your home, contributing to indoor pollution. Smoking also puts even more pollution into the air.
Do not rely on dust masks for protection. Paper comfort or dust masks commonly found at hardware stores are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks will not protect your lungs from the small particles found in wildfire smoke.
Follow the advice of your doctor or other health care provider about medicines and about your respiratory management plan if you have asthma or another lung disease.
Andy Miller is editor and CEO of Georgia Health News, and independent news organization covering healthcare in the state. Athens Banner-Herald staff writer Jim Thompson contributed to this report.