Fairview Park Hospital - November 21, 2016
by Rodney Johnson, M.D., FACAAI

Fire officials say the largest wildfire in the South has now burned more than 23,000 acres in the north Georgia mountains -- an area larger than the New York City borough of Manhattan.

The event has put off enough smoke to prompt Atlanta officials to issue a Code Red air quality alert for the first time since July 2012. We sat down with Dr. Rodney Johnson, M.D., FACAAI at Middle Georgia Allergy and Asthma to tell us more about how this is affecting the health of his patients and what you can do to protect yourself.

Dr. Johnson, has the Middle Georgia area been affected by these fires? If so how severe?

The wildfires in North Georgia in conjunction with the Northeasterly winds and very dry air has blown a significant amount of smoke into our area. There has been a dramatic increase in people with asthma flares this past week due to the smoke as well as those with other types of respiratory problems such as emphysema and COPD. Those who suffer from these types of respiratory problems have noticed an increase in difficulty breathing and have required frequent use of their rescue inhalers and other respiratory medications.

What can people do to protect themselves from the smoke?

The best advice particularly for those with asthma is to stay indoors as much as possible during the high levels of smoke in the air. Be sure to run your air conditioner or fan on recirculate at all times using a HEPA air filter while keeping the windows and doors closed. The recirculate options on window air conditioners and in your vehicle are very useful to help prevent outdoor smoky air from being brought into the indoor clean air. Unfortunately, wearing a face mask will not help you very much because smoke particles are extremely small. The particles are able to get around the edges of face masks and often penetrate through the mask itself.

In addition to knowing the weather conditions, checking the Air Quality Index (AQI) at amp.georgiaair.org and the AQI forecast can help you be on alert to help you take proper precautions. Any AQI level other that “Good” can affect individuals with asthma. Dry air conditions and winds from the Northwest will increase the smoke levels for that day.

For those who have known asthma or other respiratory conditions, having your rescue medications on hand at all times is essential to treat any flare-ups or exacerbations.

What kind of side effects can happen from inhaling too much of the smoke?

Smoke is a strong irritant that can affect the lungs, nose, sinus and upper airway. As the level of smoke in the air increases, the likelihood of symptoms to occur increase in addition to worsening the severity of the symptoms. Typically coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness occur to those with underlying asthma and COPD. Nasal congestion, runny nose, post nasal drip and a sore throat can occur to individuals with or even without nasal allergies.

What should a person do if they think they are suffering from breathing in too much of this smoke?

For people with asthma or COPD, they should use their rescue inhalers and medications as prescribed and keep them on-hand to use if needed. If symptoms are worsening or persist then they should call their doctor. Sometimes a course of anti-inflammatory medications such as oral corticosteroids may be needed to calm their symptoms.

Rodney Johnson, M.D. is head of Middle Georgia Allergy and Asthma in Dublin, Georgia. He completed his training and fellowship in Adult and Pediatric Allergy and Immunology at Children's Mercy Hospital in Kansas City, Missouri. He is Board Certified in Allergy and Immunology and Internal Medicine, and is a Fellow in the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology.