The string of winter storms that blasted the Valley in recent weeks is bringing more children into local emergency rooms with respiratory issues.
"The most common complaint is a cough getting worse and difficulty breathing," said Dr. Onyemeze Azuogu, a pediatric emergency room doctor at Mesa's Banner Desert Medical Center.
The cold weather can exacerbate lung conditions in children and adults who already have asthma. Viruses such as influenza and respiratory syncytial virus, or RSV, thrive when temperatures drop, said Dr. Jeff Kirkpatrick, medical director at the Catholic Healthcare West's Gilbert Urgent Care.
"I think the weather plays a factor. As the temperatures have gone down the viruses are more active," Kirkpatrick said. "(People) are hugging and kissing people they haven't seen in a while. With holidays it's easy to spread viruses."
Low temperatures today in the Valley are expected to be in the low 30s with high temperatures in the low 60s.
Rain can clear out the air, but the effect only lasts for a day or two, Kirkpatrick said.
Overall the urgent care clinic has seen fewer patients this year, but those who come in are sicker and more are requiring repeated breathing treatments, Kirkpatrick said.
"Colder temperatures can set off a lot of people's asthma," Kirkpatrick said. "A lot of people, when they go outside first thing in the morning they'll have coughing and wheezing."
Arizona is often recommended as a place for asthmatics to live because the air is typically dry, but there are still a lot of dust and pollutants in the air which can trigger respiratory issues, Azuogu said. Last week the Maricopa County Air Quality Department issued several health warnings for high levels of particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or less. On Friday the department issued the first high pollution advisory of the season for Sunday, making it a no burn day. It is recommended that those with respiratory illness limit outdoor time.
Besides cases of RSV and influenza, doctors are also seeing the upper-respiratory infection known as croup, Azuogu said.
"Today, I've seen three cases already this morning," Kirkpatrick said Tuesday. "Even though we do see that during the fall season, it's more common during the winter period because it's also caused by a virus infection, the influenza virus."
It can infect the voice box, which makes patients sound hoarse. They also may have a "barking, seal-like cough," he said.
The physicians recommend parents keep watch on their children who suffer from asthma. If a child has two nights of wheezing or excessive coughing, call a physician. And all asthma sufferers should be vigilant about using their maintenance medications.
"Sometimes when their asthma is doing better they stop using it," Kirkpatrick said. "If they're supposed to be taking a preventative medicine, make sure they're taking it the way they're supposed to. If they do get an attack, it won't be as severe."
Kirkpatrick also encourages patients who can measure their breathing production at home with a peak flow meter to do it every day. And if their numbers drop 10 percent lower than normal, call a doctor.
"Another thing is for parents to keep the patients covered well," said Azuogu. "If they are cold, their immunity drops and they can easily catch these infections. Keep them warm during these cold seasons."