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Coughing? Blame Dust, Not Katrina

November 30, 2005

Fran Simon

While the Louisiana Public Health Institute cautions New Orleans-area residents and workers that excessive moisture and flooding may cause mold to grow in homes and offices, it is primarily individuals who have allergies, breathing conditions and weakened immune systems who need to be concerned.


Coughing is a natural defense against particles getting into the lower part of the airway, says Jane Maroney El-Dahr, chief of pediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology at Tulane and president of the Louisiana Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"Conditions in the area are better than expected," says Pierre Buekens, dean of the Tulane School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine. "There was no outbreak of infectious diseases, the mosquito population is controlled, and the air quality is good. Although some people report a cough, there is no evidence of a 'Katrina cough.' Coughing may be caused by a lot of different things, including colds and flu."

The Department of Environmental Quality has analyzed air samples taken in the area impacted by Hurricane Katrina and the results show the air has returned to pre-hurricane quality in most areas, says Maureen Lichtveld, chair of environmental health sciences.

"Data from the DEQ and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show air quality meets all federal standards."

The full announcement is available online. Some possible cough triggers may include the level of dust generated by indoor and outdoor clean-up activities, the absence of rain creating more chances for wind-blown dust and allergens such as oak trees coinciding with the fall season.

"It has been extremely dry here since Katrina, and Hurricane Rita did not bring as much rain as was expected, so it is unusually dry and dusty," says Jane Maroney El-Dahr, chief of pediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology at Tulane and president of the Louisiana Society of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

"It is the beginning of the viral respiratory season in south Louisiana now, so the usual number of first 'colds' of the season have begun. It is important to remember that coughing is the natural defense against particles (including mold spores) getting into the lower part of our airway, so it is actually a good thing in many ways to cough."

El-Dahr cautions that people with a history of significant asthma and those with weakened immune systems should avoid exposure to mold and other allergens, since the cough reflex alone won't protect them from becoming sick.

About 25 percent of the population has some degree of allergy, and it's important for people with allergies and asthma to continue using their prescription medications. Buekens believes the public health concerns of top priority in the community are accidents, access to care, mental health and lifestyle issues due to stress, such as smoking.

"Concerns about our health are a natural reaction to disasters such as these storms. We want to build a healthy community together; public health experts and Tulane faculty are committed to make that happen."

Tulane-Lakeside Hospital is hosting an "Ask the Expert" Day on "Katrina cough" from 1-3 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 4, at the hospital, 4700 I-10 Service Road in Metairie, La. The mini-health fair will provide information on adult and childhood asthma, allergies and mold.

The free event, including respiratory screenings and asthma screening surveys, is open to the public. Tulane asthma specialist Nereida Parada will speak about accurate diagnosis of symptoms. For more information call 504-780-8282.

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Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000