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Changing Environments: Can Natural Disasters Put People with Asthma at Risk?

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No matter where you live, there’s a chance you could experience a natural disaster or destructive environmental phenomenon in your lifetime. In late 2018, wildfires in California caught attention across North America for what became the state’s most destructive wildfire season to date.

More and more research is exploring the impact of climate change on the environment and its relationship to natural disasters and severe weather events in recent years.

While smoke from wildfires presents a specific and obvious risk to those of us with asthma, what risk do natural disasters, including hurricanes, flooding, and winter storms, pose for people with asthma and others potentially sensitive to environmental changes?

Natural disasters: Who’s at risk?

The types of natural hazards, and disasters, we may experience vary between different parts of the world.

Due to their geographic nature, it’s difficult to predict a person’s lifetime risk for experiencing a natural disaster, and the data available is somewhat limited.

One major 2005 study on hotspots of natural hazards showed that roughly 13 percent of the world’s population lived in areas affected by multiple natural hazards. This included drought, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and landslides, which all may be affected by climate change.

This is not an insignificant proportion of the population. It becomes even more significant when we factor in the number of people affected by flooding, wildfires, and winter storms annually.

Impact of climate change on health and asthma

It may take many more studies to understand the complex impact of climate change on public health. But studies note that changes in the Earth’s climate has impacted the rate of severe weather events. Studies also note that these changes can potentially lead to adverse health outcomes.

Additionally, other research has found that the prevalence of asthma is increasing, and it can be attributable, at least in part, to the effects of climate change, including air pollution.

In addition, weather and environmental changes can directly affect people with asthma. An increase in pollen concentrations combined with an increase in temperature and humidity can affect people with asthma and allergic rhinitis, or hay fever.

Natural disaster preparedness and asthma

One step individuals can take to prepare is to find out about local emergency procedures before an emergency strikes. This is especially important if you have chronic health conditions, including asthma.

Just as individuals do, cities and regions can prepare for disasters and severe weather. One way governments and other agencies can prepare to help people with chronic diseases, like asthma, in emergency situations is by using a disease surveillance system.

The system tracks how many people in a region have diseases including asthma, diabetes, and heart disease.

Preparing for natural disaster events can help assure appropriate resources are in place; for instance, making certain appropriate supplies of certain medications are available and accessible to the community during relief efforts following a disaster. It helps keep people healthy and prevents an interruption of their healthcare management if they don’t have enough medications available when a disaster strikes.

Ask your local emergency preparedness organization, such as the Red Cross, if they have a disease surveillance system in place. If not, consider reaching out to your elected officials to advocate for this system and explain why it is important to you.

Having a personal emergency kit that includes an adequate supply of medication is important. Be sure to check expiration dates and replace these supplies regularly.

If you use a nebulizer for your asthma, consider backup power sources in the event that you are without power for an extended period of time. In emergencies involving extreme weather conditions or power loss, ask your doctor if inhalers might work better for your needs.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends having at least a three-day supply of medication. Backup copies of physical prescriptions can also be helpful. However, these prescriptions may only be valid for six months to a year after your doctor has signed them.

If you’re evacuated from your home, take all medications with you, along with insurance information and health cards as applicable.

Remember, your pharmacy may be affected and unable to transfer prescriptions to another pharmacy. You may wish to ask your pharmacist about their procedures regarding emergency preparedness.

Consider keeping paper documents in a sealed plastic bag to keep them safe from water.

The CDC also recommends preparing for the aftermath and cleanup following disasters like hurricanes and other flood events. Consider including a N95 respirator mask, rubber/latex/nitrile gloves, and rubber boots (perhaps in a watertight container) among your supplies.

For more information on creating a survival kit, visit Ready.gov.

The takeaway: Always be prepared

In the event of an emergency, it’s better to have what you need ready to grab-and-go than to have to scramble to find necessary supplies.

Planning ahead can ensure not only that you’re ready for the unexpected, but also that you have peace of mind and are able to focus on what you need to do and where you need to go.

Those of us with asthma are used to combatting environmental triggers. Natural disasters can pose a real threat to anyone with respiratory or other chronic health conditions.

As we learn more about the impact of climate change on our environment, it’s important to stay on top of your asthma management plan and adjust it as needed.

For more information on how to manage asthma, reach out to your doctor or healthcare team. 

RESP-US-NP-00103 JUNE 2019

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