Sinus issues pile on to Harvey’s aftermath
Doctors report spike in many patients with respiratory symptoms
Judy Lupo has struggled with allergies and asthma since she came to Houston more than 50 years ago, but the level of suffering was never like it has been since her home flooded in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey.
She’s a mess of coughing, itching eyes, blurred vision, sinus congestion, postnasal drip and general discomfort, she says, torment that shows no sign of easing. When Lupo goes into her old neighborhood, devastated still, she wears a mask.
“It’s been a dramatic change,” said Lupo, 77, a retired speech pathologist. “In the last five years I’d gotten to the point where my allergies seemed relatively mild, but everything that’s in the air now has them out of control. It’s quite frustrating. It limits activity, life.”
Lupo is hardly alone, according to Houston-area doctors, who report a spike in patients with respiratory symptoms. If skin infections were the No. 1 health problem in the initial period after Harvey, sinus distress clearly is the big issue now, they say.
It is not hard to imagine why. Such problems following hurricanes are common because of mold and overgrowth of plants that result from the flooding, as well as dust and fibers released from drywall, plaster, flooring and other sources during clean-up efforts.
State officials also report that
refineries, petrochemical plants and other industrial operations spewed millions of pounds of pollutants into the air during Harvey-related shutdowns and accidents in the Houston area.
New Orleans doctors in 2005 referred to the “Katrina cough.” In Houston, the term “Harvey hack” is catching on.
Of course, it’s not that simple. For many patients, doctors can’t be sure whether symptoms were caused by Harvey or seasonal allergies, now in full force.
Ragweed, the season’s most prevalent allergen, has reached “heavy” levels in the city’s daily pollen and mold report for more than a week. That should continue until the weather turns colder in November, said Tony Huynh, a laboratory supervisor in the city’s health department. Mold spores, currently at medium levels, are a year-round allergen. ‘Multiple factors’
In addition, doctors are even reporting some patients with the flu, off to an early start.
“It’s a combination of the three — Harvey, seasonal allergies, the flu — that’s driving the visits, more than one for some patients,” said Dr. Eric Sandberg, an allergist at Kelsey-Seybold, the health clinic network. “It’s hard to differentiate, but I’m confident multiple factors are at play.”
Suspecting Harvey’s role, Sandberg had requested figures for respiratory appointments for Kelsey Seybold’s 20 clinics around the city. The initial returns supported the notion, showing a 23 percent jump in patients from August to September this year, up from a 12 percent increase last year. A closer look at the data, however, suggests 2016 was the outlier. The August-toSeptember increase was 30 percent in 2014, and 28 percent in 2015.
Sandberg said it makes sense that the increase is “storm-related, the way patients started coming in a week after the storm. But you can’t know.” He added that October is always Houston allergists’ busiest time of year because the drop in humidity leads to more pollen.
Still, many doctors are convinced Harvey is the major culprit these days. They note that a preponderance of the patients they are seeing are from areas most affected by the storm and floods, areas where there still is debris outside.
“These cases are more than routine seasonal allergies,” said Dr. Zeenat Safdar, a pulmonologist at Houston Methodist Hospital and Lupo’s doctor. “Most people know their seasonal allergies. These cases are more severe, more prolonged. People are being exposed to too many impurities and particles.”
Lupo waded through knee-high water to her Memorial-area home’s second floor after the Addicks Reservoir release, was evacuated by boat the next day and was shuttled from site to site before landing at George R. Brown Convention.
Still, it took about two weeks for her symptoms to flare up, after she returned to her neighborhood.
Dr. Chase Whitehead, a doctor of family medicine at Memorial Hermann Medical Group Memorial City, said he began seeing patients with respiratory problems soon after Harvey hit — people with runny noses and coughs they could not shake, former asthmatics whose problems suddenly flared up again. He said there has been no tapering off in the weeks since.
Whitehead also noted that it is hard to know what is driving the increase. He treated 10 patients recently who thought they had upper-respiratory infections. Nine turned out to have no infection but an inflammation of the lungs, which he treated with steroids.
“I don’t want to send the message these respiratory problems only involve inflammation, though,” he said. “I’ve probably seen 10 flu cases already.” Bad flu season likely
That could be an ominous sign for a flu season experts are saying looks like a bad one. Though the flu season has officially started nationally, Houston doctors typically do not see cases until November, and the bulk of them until January and February.
The positive about Houston’s respiratory problems is that they have not been bad enough to warrant more trips to emergency departments than usual. Houston’s health department reports the number of visits to the ER visits for respiratory illness was no greater in September of 2017 than 2016.
To minimize risks, doctors urge people to limit their time outdoors and their exposure to mold and other allergens or pollutants, particularly if they know they have airborne sensitivities or an upper respiratory infection. If they need to clean an area that looks or smells like mold, doctors advocate wearing a mask.
Judy and Dick Lupo’s Memorial-area home was inundated after floodwater releases upstream at the Addicks Reservoir. In the weeks since Harvey, Judy Lupo says the intensity of her allergies has spiked.