The big thing that is going on is for people who have asthma or emphysema, their lungs are already sensitive. These are people who are already more likely to have their lungs tighten up where airways can’t get air through them. It just makes things that much worse. —Dr. Troy Madsen

SALT LAKE CITY — The air pollution numbers may not be that bad, but the lungs of people with asthma and emphysema are telling a different story when it comes to emergency room visits at one local hospital.

Doctors this summer have seen a spike in visits by sensitive populations, an increase attributable to smoke from area wildfires and summertime smog, said Dr. Troy Madsen, an emergency room physician at University Hospital.

"The big thing that is going on is for people who have asthma or emphysema, their lungs are already sensitive," he said. "These are people who are already more likely to have their lungs tighten up where airways can’t get air through them. It just makes things that much worse."

The Utah Division of Air Quality classified Tuesday's conditions for ozone as moderate in Salt Lake and Davis counties, not yet reaching that federal Clean Air threshold that qualifies as exceeding the amount of ozone that is considered seriously unhealthy.

For Wednesday and Thursday, the forecast is good, improving as firefighters continue to get a handle on the blazes and afternoon storms that stir up the air.

Madsen did not have specific numbers on visits to emergency rooms caused by bad air. He said the wildfire smoke, however, adds to the Wasatch Front's struggle with ozone during the summer heat and sends more people to seek help.

He said those with lung conditions should be prepared to deal with the conditions.

"The big thing is to make sure medications are refilled, inhalers are full and make sure you are using them," Madsen said. "If things get really bad, come to the ER."

Madsen said some of those recent visits have turned into overnight hospital stays.

Jess Gomez, spokesman for Intermountain Medical Center, said the emergency room there has not seen any increase in visits due poor air quality, but complaints from the pulmonary clinic's patients are up.

"We have not seen anything signficant in the last two or three weeks."

Despite the spike in visits at the University Hospital's emergency room recently, Madsen said it has been nothing compared to last summer.

"I can say that I have never seen a summer in the ER like last summer in terms of the number of cases we had with people who had trouble breathing," he said. "It was worse than what we see in the winter, which is usually pretty bad. Let’s just hope it doesn’t get to that point."

Donna Kemp Spangler, spokeswoman for the Utah Department of Environmental Quality, said there have been four days when ozone levels topped the federal threshold this summer, compared with seven last summer in Salt Lake and Davis counties.

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