High winds stir up health concerns

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By Jennifer Thomas By Jennifer Thomas

PHOENIX -- High winds in the Phoenix area Monday stirred up respiratory issues from shortness of breath to concerns over Valley Fever.

The Emergency Department at Banner Baywood Medical Center in Mesa saw a couple dozen patients, at least, complaining of respiratory illness, including asthma, COPD and chronic bronchitis.

"There's nothing like not having air come in; that gets your attention very fast," said John Gill, who was treated Monday.

He and his wife, Dolores, knew to take symptoms seriously, especially as gusts kicked up dust, pollution and potentially hazardous particles into the air.

"It was pretty scary," said Dolores Gill of the conditions. "You hope it doesn't make things worse with the chronic bronchitis I was diagnosed with."

Ashley Bergeron, RN, said people need to seek medical care if they feel like they're in distress or can't speak in full sentences.

If Monday's weather is a preview of what's to come this summer, Bergeron urges people to take basic, common-sense precautions.

"Wear a mask if you have to go outside," Bergeron said. "Make sure you're changing your air filters frequently."

The health risks of continued exposure to particulate matter can be serious and damaging to the lungs.

If you can't stay inside during dust storms or don't have a mask, there's this simple advice:

"Breathe through your nose as much as possible," said Dr. Larry Spratling, chief medical officer of Banner Baywood. "(If) you're breathing through your mouth, you have no filter. Everything is going right in. Think of your nose and your upper air passages as a filter mechanism."

While we've long heard concerns about a link between high winds and Valley Fever caused by spores blowing up from our desert soil, a renowned expert on the disease said new data reveals the risk here exists year-round.

"The likelihood of contracting from this are about the same today, as far as we know, based on the (CDC) data we saw in 2011," said Dr. John Galgiani, director of the U of A Valley Fever Center for Excellence based at St. Joseph's Hospital and Medical Center.

"As striking as these windstorms are, the data suggests it's more all the breezes we have all year long in a dry year or a year previously that had a heavy rain, which allow the fungus to grow in the soil," Galgiani said. "Those two effects are what probably drive the infection rates and not the big spectacular dust storms we have."

For more information visit www.vfce.arizona.edu.