Nov. 5, 2005 -- Some New Orleans residents are calling it the "Katrina Cough" -- a general upper respiratory irritation afflicting people returning to their hurricane-ravaged city.
What's causing the cough is a bit of mystery and no one is sure how widespread it is. But doctors says the trend is not a good sign, especially for people who already suffer from respiratory ailments like asthma, bronchitis and allergies.
"It is definitely more noticeable," said Dr. Robert Beckerman, professor and chief of pediatric pulmonology at Tulane Hospital for Children in New Orleans. "The allergy season has started earlier than usual. I have seen more children with coughing and rhinitis than in years past. I admit I have asthma and have had to double up on my meds after reconstruction work on my home."
Beckerman said the cough is probably caused by a mixture of several unfortunate events occurring at once: recent spells of dry, cool weather that can trigger asthma, plus lots of dust in the air caused by all the reconstruction. Added to that are homes covered in mold, a known allergy trigger.
"This not only affects allergic and asthmatic families who are living and working in those homes, but also construction teams," Beckerman said. "The molds may also produce toxins and irritants which may contribute to their effects."
Fran Simon, public relations director for Tulane University Health Sciences Center, said she knows of several people with the cough. She described it as a chronic, nagging, dry cough and chest tightness.
It doesn't help that New Orleans always has high levels of mold because of the year-round warm climate, said Dr. Jane Maroney El-Dahr, head of pediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology at Tulane University Health Sciences Center.
But, she said, a cough isn't all that alarming, given the circumstances.
"It is important to remember that cough 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 -- it protects us in situations like this," she said in an email.
At this point, no one knows how many people might be affected by the cough. Some estimates have put it at 25 percent higher than normal, but no one has really studied this yet, Beckerman pointed out.
"We don't have numbers yet," he said. "The CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] started their surveys yesterday and we will only be able to say in retrospect ...We won't have coughing data for another month."
In the meantime, Maroney El-Dahr said people who are in poor health should probably not return to the city just yet.
"Patients with a history of significant asthma and those with weakened immune systems should not come back into the city at this point, since the cough reflex alone certainly won't protect them," she said.
And for those who do come back, she has this advice for people rebuilding their homes:
"They absolutely should not be without a mask, to protect themselves."