# Monday, 23 June 2008

With summer here bringing the hot weather, air quality can be a big concern for Canadians, especially depending on where you live. Even for those who do not have respiratory problems, smog can be quite harmful and pose a health risk. For those with existing breathing problems, smog can be very dangerous.

Originally, the word smog was a definition of the mixture of smoke and fog. However, today smog defines the harmful mixture of gases and particles and is considered air pollution. Although it is usually visible as haze, it can also be invisible, due to particles that are too tiny to be visible. Weather factors such as humidity, as well as the type of pollutants determine what type of smog you experience on that certain day.

Many air pollutants combine to make smog. These pollutants are usually:

• Ground-level ozone: Ozone that is found high in the atmosphere is known as "good ozone"; it helps protects us from the sun's rays. However, ground level ozone is harmful to human health when it is inhaled. It can exacerbate respiratory problems for those who already have asthma, COPDS and other lung diseases, as well as those who suffer from cardiovascular diseases. Ground-level ozone forms when nitrogen oxide and volatile organic compounds from vehicle exhaust, factory emissions, etc. react with sunlight.
• Fine Particulate Matter (PM): A broad term for particles of liquids and/or solids that are air pollutants. PM 2.5 is matter that is very small but that can be breathed deeply into a person's lungs and remain there. It also stays in the air longer and travels further than other large particles. It is usually a result of vehicle exhaust, wood burning, paved and/or unpaved roads, construction, industry and forest fires. This tends to be the matter that makes people cough and/or sneeze as well as irritate the lungs, eyes, and/or throat. This also exacerbates breathing problems for those who already have respiratory disorders, and can actually cause heart attacks in those who have existing heart diseases.
• Sulphur Dioxide: A colorless gas that usually smells like burnt matches; this is a main ingredient in acid rain. When this combines with Volatile Organic Chemicals (VOC) and sunlight it creates ground-level ozone. The main causes for this gas are burning fossil fuels, industry mills, volcanoes and hot springs, and diesel vehicles. Exposure to sulphur dioxide can actually cause lung disease. It also irritates the nose and throat and causes breathing problems, as well lowering the lung's natural defense system. For those with cardiovascular and/or respiratory problems, exposure can make these worse.
• Nitrogen Oxides: This is caused by the same things that cause sulphur dioxide. Exposure can lower the body's resistance to lung infections as well as cause shortness of breath and irritation of the upper airways.
• Total Reduced Sulphur Compounds (TRS): A mixture of gases that usually smells like rotten eggs. This is common around areas that contain steel, pulp and/or paper mills, refineries and sewage treatment plants. Exposure usually results in headaches and/or nausea.
• Carbon Monoxide (CO): Odorless, tasteless, colorless gas that is poisonous at high levels. This is usually caused by burning fossil fuels in vehicles, the production of metals as well as emissions from heaters. At low levels, it can cause headaches, dizziness, lack of breath as well as slower reflexes and perception. High level exposure can result in unconsciousness, seizures, coma and respiratory failure that can result in death.
• Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC): These are gases in the vapors of gasoline, solvents as well as oil-based paints. They react with nitrogen oxides when it is sunny and/or warm and cause ground level ozone. The most common causes for VOCs are burning gasoline, the production of oil/gas products, wood burning and the evaporation of liquid fuels and solvents. Exposure can cause irritation to the eyes, nose and/or throat, headaches, nausea, loss of coordination and can also worsen lung and heart conditions.
• Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAH): This is caused by the incomplete burning of carbon materials, i.e. wood, oil, garbage, coal, etc. Over 10,000 compounds make up this group of pollutants, which are responsible for lung irritation as well as skin rashes. Some PAHs have been found to cause cancer in laboratory animals when they are inhaled, ingested, and/or come into contact with skin. The major sources of PAHs are furnaces, exhaust from vehicles, cigarette smoke, wood burning, and fuel producing plants.

It is estimated that smog causes 5900 early deaths in Canada per year. The majority of these early deaths occur in Canadian major cities. While smog is harmful to everyone's health, those who are at high risk are:

• People already suffering from lung disease, i.e. asthma, emphysema and/or chronic bronchitis
• Children and teenagers as their lungs are still developing and they tend to be more active outdoors. Their smaller size also means that they are breathing in more pollutants per pound of body weight which leads to a higher absorption rate.
• Seniors
• Anyone who does vigorous outdoor activities during high smog days, especially those that work outside (construction workers, etc)

Although April – September is usually considered "smog season", it can and often does occur all year round. Ground level ozone generally is more prevalent in the warmer months, while fine particulate matter occurs during the winter. Everyone should be aware of how air quality affects their breathing, especially those listed above. Pay attention to air quality advisories, and try to avoid being outside during times when smog is prevalent.

For those who are sensitive to smog, or suffer from pre-existing heart and/or lung problems, try to stay inside in an air-conditioned environment. Air conditioning can help make breathing easier during the hot summer months, especially in hot and humid weather. If you can’t avoid being outside, make sure to avoid exerting yourself physically. Try to stay in shady areas, as well as roads and streets with heavy traffic. Drink plenty of water, and rest often. Exercise indoors, such as a gym or your home. Going outdoors in the morning instead of the afternoon is also advisable; the pollution levels are usually lower during this time period. If you have asthma, never leave home without your inhaler; chances of having an asthma attack are much higher when the air quality is poor.

Smog can have a negative affect on your health for up to a day after being exposed. If you experience problems breathing, make sure to contact your physician as soon as possible. For severe asthma attacks or other serious difficulties breathing, go to your nearest emergency room.

posted on Monday, 23 June 2008 16:36:04 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #   
# Wednesday, 11 June 2008

While everyone will experience a sleepless night every now and then, chronic insomnia can have a very negative impact on health. Lack of sleep is one of the main causes of preventable traffic accidents as well as work-related accidents. Sleep is also required to bolster your immune system, as well as restore physical and mental energy. Long term sleep deprivation can also increase the severity of chronic diseases, such as high blood pressure and diabetes.

Everyone's sleep requirements are different; while some people only need 4-5 hours of sleep others require 9-10 hours. The average amount of sleep required for optimal health is usually 7-8 hours per night. The amount of sleep you need will change throughout your life, depending on such factors as your age, physical activity level as well as any medications you may be on. Insomnia also becomes more prevalent as people age and is usually more common in women.

Insomnia can be either temporary or chronic. Temporary insomnia can be situational, i.e. not being able to sleep before a stressful situation (exam, interview, etc). This usually resolves itself when the stressful situation is over. Chronic insomnia however happens on a regular and frequent basis, with either problems falling and/or staying asleep. Chronic insomnia often occurs for no apparent reason. Symptoms include such things as:

• Difficulty falling asleep at night
• Waking up often during the night
• Waking up too early and not being able to get back to sleep
• Daytime irritability due to lack of sleep
• Daytime fatigue

The most common reasons for insomnia include:

• Stress and/or anxiety: Worrying about work, school, family, health, etc. can result in your mind being too active to be able to relax. Everyday anxiety, as well as anxiety disorders can have the same effect.
• Depression: Depression can result in either sleeping too much or not being able to sleep. The chemical imbalances that can cause depression can result in the brain not being able to relax enough to be able to fall asleep.
• Using stimulants: Certain prescription drugs such as high blood pressure medication, some antidepressants as well as corticosteroid medication can cause insomnia. As well, over the counter medications such as decongestants, weight loss products and some pain medications contain caffeine and/or other stimulants which will interfere with the ability to fall asleep.
• Change in circadian rhythm: Jobs that require rotating shift work can interfere with the body's natural circadian rhythm and cause sleep problems. Jet lag is also another known interference, but usually resolves itself within a few days.
• Eating habits: Eating too much before bedtime can cause some people to feel uncomfortable when they lie down. As well, heartburn can cause discomfort which can result in keeping you awake.
• Pain: Medical conditions such as arthritis, fibromyalgia, etc. can cause pain that is great enough to keep some people awake.
• Behavioral insomnia: Worrying excessively about not being able to sleep can result in prolonging the pattern of insomnia. Trying too hard to force sleep can cause stress which in turn keeps the body awake.
• Changes in physical activity: A decrease in physical activity, which is common among people who are older, can cause sleeplessness.
• Change in lifestyle: Drinking more alcohol and/or caffeine can cause insomnia. As well, people who tend to nap during the day may find themselves not being able to sleep as well at night.

While there is differing opinions about the time length to wait before consulting with a doctor (a few days or a few weeks) it is advised to seek help from your physician if your insomnia is such that it drastically interferes with your daily activities. Because insomnia is not a disease, there is no specific test to diagnose it. Your doctor will ask very detailed specific questions about your regular sleep patterns and habits, i.e. snoring, medications you are currently taking, pain, and whether or not your legs jerk when you sleep, as well as other related questions. You will probably be asked to keep a sleep journal, where you can record when you go to bed, how long before you fall asleep, how many times per night you wake up, and when you get up in the morning, as well as the quality of your sleep. Your physician may also require that you spend a night in an accredited sleep disorder clinic, where your sleep can be monitored by professionals.

There are different ways that your doctor can recommend to help deal with chronic insomnia. The most common treatments are:

• Stress reduction: If your insomnia is due to increased stress, then reducing your stress will help solve the disrupted sleep patterns. Daily exercise can help as it can reduce stress, improve mood as well as deepen sleep. It is recommended to complete exercising at least 4 hours before bedtime. As well, your doctor may recommend therapy to help you manage your stress in a more productive manner.
• Sleep hygiene techniques: There are certain strategies that can be used in order to help promote a better sleep pattern. This includes such things as having a "buffer zone", in which you spend 90 minutes before your scheduled bedtime consciously trying to relax. Another successful technique is the "20 minute rule", where if you do not fall asleep within 20 minutes of going to bed, you get up; only returning to bed when feeling 'drowsy'. This should be repeated throughout the night if necessary. This technique does result in mild sleep deprivation, which should increase the pressure to sleep the following night. When repeated, over time this technique should improve sleep.
• Medications: Your physician may prescribe sleeping pills which will help you sleep. This can be especially effective for those who are going through a stressful period, as once the stress is over, a more normal sleeping pattern will return. Sleeping pills are usually prescribed as a short term solution; if used for too long insomnia can return when you stop taking them. As well, dependency will result in needing higher doses in order to obtain the original effect. However, there are cases where your doctor may extend the time that sleeping pills are used.

Getting enough sleep is essential for not only your physical health, but also your mental health. Leading a healthier lifestyle can promote better sleep patterns, as well as being aware of the amount of caffeine, nicotine and/or alcohol you consume. Talk to your family doctor if you are consistently having difficulties sleeping; finding the origin of the problem will result in a quicker resolution.

posted on Wednesday, 11 June 2008 21:33:29 (GMT Daylight Time, UTC+01:00)  #   
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