Mold spores, pollen taking toll on respiratory systems

Posted: Sunday, May 11, 2003

Among the assorted aggravations attending the advent of breakup are the measurable amounts of mold wafting in the wind.

And the mold's not lonely. It's commonly accompanied by an accumulation of airborne annoyances that Mother Nature likes to dust about her landscapes at this time of year, often playing havoc with our health, say specialists in respiratory medicine.

"It's a time when we tend to see our regular asthmatics in the hospital," said Rebecca Davis, a respiratory therapist and director of the cardiopulmonary department and sleep lab at Central Peninsula General Hospital.

"When breakup is just about over, everything gets really stinky around here people who live here know what I mean that old moldy icky smell that lasts about a week."

The mold grows rapidly on almost anything piles of leaves, the trunks of trees, animal feces, anything, Davis said.

At about the time the last of the snow melts and the temperatures begin rising, the mold spreads. As the atmosphere dries, winds lift the mold spores into the air.

This year, following a very mild winter, the annual event began perhaps as much as a month earlier than usual, she said. It has hit asthmatics fairly hard.

The early breakup has probably led plants to bloom earlier, too, sending clouds of pollens into the air to join the mold spores.

People allergic to molds may not be allergic to pollens, Davis said, but for those unlucky enough to be allergic to both, the problem period may last for months.

On the southern end of the Kenai Peninsula, a lingering, hacking cough has had many residents under the weather. There probably is some link to airborne particles of dust and pollen, though the ailment has been around since early winter, said Dr. William Bell.

"It's kind of a chronic cough that folks just deal with for a week or so and then come in and say they want it to go away," he said. "We give them medicine. Then it goes away in another eight to 10 days. I'm not sure we can actually claim any credit."

As for mold in particular causing local respiratory troubles, Bell suggested the evidence isn't clear which airborne irritants are the true culprits.

"Is it mold? Or is there just more stuff blooming earlier and is that all we're seeing?" he said. "It's hard to tell. Clearly, we are seeing respiratory problems earlier than we're used to. Is it any more severe? I don't know."

Jim Nestor, coordinator of respiratory therapy at South Peninsula Hospital, said weather does have some effect on mold, but the wind also is carrying other allergens around Homer like willow and alder.

"Here we get more affected by fireweed pollen," Nestor said.

Allergen season has only just begun, he said. While Homer's been windy and dry, South Peninsula hasn't registered any great increase in numbers of patients complaining of respiratory distress, he said, though the hospital has treated some with chronic respiratory problems.

"We do have higher than the national average for asthma," he said. "I don't know why."

Nestor said he isn't an epidemiologist, but generally speaking, when it's windy, there is a lot of junk flying around in the air.

"Stuff like pollen, coal dust, even animal feces, that will have an effect on people," he said.

"If people know they are allergic to molds, be particularly cautious during breakup," Davis said. "They should pay attention to their triggers and stay in contact with their physicians. They should use their medications as ordered."

Some people stop taking medications when they feel good, but at this time of year, that isn't a good idea, she said.

Peninsula communities have had their share of the flu bug over the past few months, too a nasty ailment characterized by high fever, sore throat, vomiting and diarrhea. It's a general malaise that was not anticipated, Davis said. Relapses are not uncommon.

"I had it twice," she said. "Most of my staff has had it twice. A lot of patients and hospital employees developed pneumonia. Whether that was weather related or not, I can't say, because I don't know that for a fact."

The early breakup likely exacerbated the problem, she said.

The fact that the flu virus has lingered may well be attributable to the mild weather through winter, Nestor said. Severe cold snaps tend to kill viruses, plus people tend to stay indoors more and perhaps socialize somewhat less, thus reducing the ability of the virus to spread.

Of course, Nestor added, there are always the schools, where germs tend to spread fairly easily among children and staff.

"I know one teacher who has had the flu twice," he said.

Like the Central Peninsula General Hospital, South Peninsula Hospital also has seen quite a bit of pneumonia, Nestor said.

Lately, talk has focused on a new disease.

"There's been some paranoia about SARS, especially with visitors season coming up," Nestor said, referring to the severe acute respiratory syndrome that has been in the news lately because of the fears it could spread worldwide.

"I hope it will die off. But viruses mutate. If the environment is right, a virus will mutate and could become stronger," he said.

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