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`Katrina Cough' may be nothing more than seasonal sniffles

NEW ORLEANS—Have a coughing fit in Nann Glade's neighborhood and you can pretty much expect what someone will say.

"You've got it. You've got the Katrina Cough," Glade said. "Anytime someone coughs, it seems like that's what they say."

References to "Katrina Cough" first appeared about two weeks ago in news reports about a rise in the number of people seeking medical help for respiratory illnesses after returning to their damaged homes. Since then, it has grown into a catch-all explanation for runny noses, sore throats and coughs all over New Orleans.

The condition also has been reported in damaged areas of Mississippi.

"We haven't really heard if it's a real thing," Glade said.

Physicians say mold leftover in flooded houses and dust stirred up from construction and debris-hauling are no doubt contributing to an increase in respiratory problems. But many also note that such a trend is normal this time of year, and some blame the media for sensationalizing it.

"There is no epidemic," said Aimee Goforth, spokeswoman for the Ochsner Foundation Hospital in New Orleans. "To call all these cases Katrina's Cough is basically a misnomer. They're not all related to the hurricane."

"I think its one of those phenomena where it became a catch phrase for many different types of respiratory illnesses caused by many different things," said Bob Johannessen, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals. "But it's not some mystery illness."

The state does not track respiratory illnesses. But some news reports say a few clinics are seeing up to a 25 percent increase in patients with the cold-like symptoms since Katrina hit.

Dr. Dennis Casey, an ear foot and nose doctor who has practiced in New Orleans since 1977, said that in recent weeks he has seen a high number of patients with congestion and a stubborn "dry hacky, even choky cough."

"It really does seem to be worse depending on the amount of exposure people have had to moldy surroundings from all the flooded homes," Casey said. "A lot of people are allergic to mold."

The reactions can leave people more susceptible to bacterial infections, sinus and ear infections and bronchitis, he said. It can be more dangerous for people who suffer from asthma or other pre-existing conditions.

Eric Smith, 49, of Metairie, La., who said he spent hours cleaning mold out of his apartment, said he has had congestion for weeks, though he hadn't sought medical help.

"I'm sure it's from that stuff getting up in the air," he said. "It can't be good for you."

Cathy Lopez, infection control supervisor at East Jefferson General Hospital, said there are other explanations for such symptoms. The weather is changing. It's been dry. And many families still live in cramped conditions, giving sickness more opportunity to spread.

"To be honest, we see coughs a lot this time of year," Lopez said. "It's similar to what we see when we have high pollen counts. It's the season for respiratory problems."

Goforth said the city has far more pressing worries than Katrina Cough.

"This is the season for the sniffles," she said. "We've had a slight increase in respiratory illnesses. ... Write about depression or industrial accidents. Those are the more serious problems to come out of all this."

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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