Vog symptoms showing up: Medical providers seeing more patients in recent days

KAILUA-KONA — Hawaii Island medical providers are starting to see an increase in patients reporting vog-related symptoms as Kilauea Volcano’s latest eruption continues.

At West Hawaii Community Health Center, which operates clinics in Kailua-Kona, Kealakehe, Kealakekua and Waikoloa, nearly a third of all patient visits in recent days have been vog-related, said Dr. Heather Miner.

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“We’re seeing a lot of patients coming in with headaches, burning eyes, throat pain, asthma symptoms and fatigue,” Miner said. “It’s a pretty big prevalence. Out of all the patients we’re seeing, at least 30 percent are feeling symptoms from the vog.”

Those symptoms are triggered by sulfur dioxide, the main component of vog or “volcanic smog,” which can have harmful effects on the lungs and aggravate pre-existing respiratory problems such as bronchitis and asthma attacks, according to the American Lung Association. It irritates the nose, throat and airways to cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, or a tight feeling around the chest.

Those currently seeking medical help are not only those suffering from pre-existing conditions such as asthma and chronic pulmonary obstructive disease (COPD), but also people who are normally healthy.

“People that say, ‘I’ve lived here for a long time and I’ve never had issues with vog’ are now presenting vog-related symptoms,” Miner said.

In addition, the health center’s locations are getting a lot of requests for refills for inhalers and similar medical devices from patients that are not coming in to see a doctor.

“That’s just another indication that they are having asthma symptoms,” Miner said.

Kaiser Permanente, which operates medical offices in Kailua-Kona, Waimea and Hilo, also reported staffers are fielding more calls and seeing an increased number of patients complaining of the typical symptoms of vog exposure, said Kaiser spokeswoman Laura Lott.

“We are seeing an uptick in the number of appointments and calls regarding coughs, sore throats and headaches that would be directly attributed to the air quality,” she said, adding that the increase is “nothing radical” and that the staff is more than able to handle the influx.

The company’s Hawaii Island pharmacies are also seeing more refill requests for prescriptions for inhalers, Lott said. She attributed the increase to people who already have respiratory issues “planning ahead” for reduced air quality.

Ji Kim, pharmacist at the former Mina Pharmacy on Kuakini Highway that was acquired by CVS Health, said she’s seen more people coming in seeking relief from symptoms, as well as picking prescriptions for inhalers and nebulizers.

“We have enough supply,” she said of the pharmacy’s inventory.

Malama Compounding Pharmacy in Kailua-Kona has also seen numerous people coming in complaining of general respiratory issues. On Thursday, the pharmacy just about sold out of over-the-counter vog relief medicine, said pharmacist Pat Adams.

“The winds are wrong and the people are suffering,” he said.

While doctors and pharmacies are seeing an increase in patients and requests for prescription refills, most Hawaii Island hospitals haven’t seen an increase in visitors with respiratory issues related to the vog.

Neither Kona Community Hospital in Kealakekua, Kohala Hospital in Kapaau nor North Hawaii Community Hospital in Waimea have seen an increase in visits to the emergency department, according to their respective spokespersons.

The impact in East Hawaii is “minimal,” said Elena Cabatu, spokeswoman for Hilo Medical Center and Ka‘u Hospital, the closest hospitals to the active volcano.

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Hilo Medical Center, which is technically the closest to the volcano, is seeing normal levels of activity in the emergency department, she said. Ka‘u Hospital, located in Pahala, “continues to have the slightest uptick of respiratory issues.”

“Really,” she said, “it’s nothing that we can’t handle.”

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