Monday Medical: Traveling with asthma

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You can research air quality across the U.S. on several Web sites. Log on to www.airnow.gov to check the air quality index. For more reports and a current pollen and mold spore count, check out www.weather.com or www.aaaai.org.>

The biggest challenge some Olympic athletes may face in Beijing next month is not the other competitors but the high level of air pollution. Athletes who have asthma will be especially vulnerable to this hazy hazard.

Asthma is a chronic disease affecting the air passages of the lungs. A person who has asthma is abnormally sensitive to certain allergens or irritants that can cause him or her to start gasping for breath and wheezing.

The severity of asthma symptoms and attacks varies widely. Some patients may have only occasional episodes of wheezing and coughing, while others are bothered with wheezing most of the time and have occasional severe attacks.

For the 20 million Americans with asthma, breathing may not always come easily. Those who manage their disease well are determined not to let it limit their lives or travels. That doesn't mean, however, that they ignore the possible challenges traveling can present.

"If you have asthma, before you go on a vacation trip, consider having a physical examination," Yampa Valley Medical Center Respiratory Care Director Bill Moore said. "You can ask your doctor specific questions related to the trip and how to handle a possible asthma attack.

"It is important to take your doctor's phone number with you, in case you need emergency advice," Moore added. "It's also a good idea to learn the location and capabilities of medical facilities where you are going."

Moore noted that Yampa Valley Medical Center treats numerous visitors to the Steamboat Springs area who have asthma attacks while on vacation.

He advises travelers to take along all medications, plus a peak flow meter, nebulizer and other devices.

"Be sure to have them within reach at all times; do not leave them in the trunk of the car or in checked baggage on the airplane," he said.

Pets and their skin dander are a common cause of asthma attacks. Dogs, cats, birds, down pillows and down cushions can be hazardous, whether at a friend's house or a youth hostel. A person with asthma should inquire about pets ahead of time and consider bringing along an allergen-proof pillow and blanket.

Advance knowledge of your destination is a good thing to have. Many cities are full of diesel fumes, cigarette smoke and other air pollutants.

In 2007, the Environmental Defense Fund listed these U.S. cities as having the dirtiest air: Los Angeles, Riverside-San Bernardino, New York City, Philadelphia, Houston, Washington, D.C., Chicago, Baltimore, Atlanta and Detroit. Although Denver has made great clean-up strides in recent years, you sometimes still can see the infamous "brown cloud" hovering as you drive down Interstate 70.

People with asthma know the importance of booking a nonsmoking room. However, these may not be available in all locales. Cigarette smoke in restaurants and on public transportation also can be a problem.

In one recent California study, about a third of subjects reported encountering second-hand tobacco smoke during travel. More than half of the respondents with asthma indicated this smoke exposure worsened their symptoms.

"Molds, mildews and even crowded conditions can also create problems for people with asthma," Moore said. "Altitude is another potential trigger."

If you are headed for the great outdoors instead of a city, you may want to research pollen counts and insect prevalence in order to find the best time to visit. Also beware of campfires, wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

Then, there's the rental car. Although I do not have asthma, I once developed acute nasal and sinus congestion while vacationing in hot, humid Wisconsin. I finally realized my misery was linked to the car's air conditioning. When I turned it off and opened the windows, the congestion disappeared.

In a rental car, consider staying outside while you run the air conditioner or heater with the windows open for several minutes to get rid of allergens that might lurk in the ventilation system. While driving, you may want to keep the windows closed to protect yourself from highway fumes and pollen.

Make sure your asthma is under good control before leaving home. Then enjoy your hard-earned vacation and adventurous activities without worrying about your health.

Christine McKelvie is the public relations director at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

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