The hazy dog days of summer cause more than just uncomfortable temperatures. Increased ozone levels - which are common during the summer months - can be particularly irritating to individuals with breathing problems, as well as young children and the elderly.
Ozone is a colorless gas that can be very irritating to the airways and lungs at high concentrations. Ozone levels are increased with heat and when the gas comes together with other volatile gases that automobiles and industries release.
Information about daily ozone levels is available from local newspapers and television station newscasts to help increase awareness when air quality reaches an unhealthy level. The information is reported through a color-coded scale where green is good air quality, yellow is moderate, orange signifies unhealthy for sensitive groups, red is unhealthy and burgundy is very unhealthy.
When ozone levels reach the orange level or above, pulmonary rehabilitation patients as well as other sensitive individuals may need to take extra precautions and limit their time outdoors.
We see a lot of orange level days in this area because East Tennessee is like a bowl. Because we’re in the valley, things in the air just swirl around and settle in our region. When there’s not a front coming in to push the air through, that’s when we get a lot of days in the orange level - especially in July and August. It takes a storm system to come through and really clear the air. Also, ozone levels tend to be higher in the city than in more rural areas because of the increased automobile traffic and industries.
When an air quality alert is issued, people in these groups should avoid more-strenuous outdoor activities during the hottest part of the day. Try doing them early in the morning or late in the evening while temperatures are lower and the air quality is better.
Another key factor is making sure people stay hydrated. A lot of times, people think that if they drink two to three ounces of water before going outside for two or three hours, that it’s enough. But, individuals - those who are sensitive to air quality and everyone else - need to continue drinking water the whole time they are outside.
People - especially the elderly - also should be aware of the medications they are on that might make them more sensitive to the sun and elevated ozone levels. Wearing sun-blocking clothing and sunscreen is another good way to protect against harmful ultraviolet rays and ozone levels.
Symptoms of poor air quality can include increased shortness of breath, more laborious breathing, increased tightness and heaviness in the chest, and wheezing. People who experience any of these symptoms or feel that they are having difficulty breathing during hot weather should go inside to an air-conditioned environment and cool down. If they use oxygen, an inhaler or a bronchodilator, they’re encouraged to use those and rest.
If after doing these things, people still are struggling with breathing, it’s time to call the doctor - or if it’s bad enough - make a trip to the emergency department.
Jessie Sensaboy is a registered respiratory therapist with the Medical Fitness Center of Blount Memorial Hospital, and she works with pulmonary rehabilitation patients. For more information about breathing disorders or complications, call 865-977-5636.