SALT LAKE CITY — Turns out the murky air that lingers over the valley during many of Utah's winter months is actually finding its way into our lungs, and inherently compromising breathing for many individuals with asthma.

Those infamous inversions occur most frequently between December and February, when cool air traps warmer air, also trapping pollutants and particulate matter along with it, according to the Utah Department of Environmental Quality. Typically, those inversions commandeer the air at least 10-12 days each month during winter, making it difficult for many, but specifically asthma patients, to even spend time outdoors.

A recent analysis by the Utah Department of Health, the National Weather Service and other partners discovered that people can often withstand inversions if the poor air quality doesn't last more than three days. Any longer, and inversions can end up sending asthma sufferers to the emergency room for treatment.

"The bottom line is that the analysis shows people with asthma need to be especially vigilant throughout an inversion to reduce their exposure to asthma triggers and manage their symptoms," said Celeste Beck, an epidemiologist with the UDOH Asthma Program.

Those with asthma, she said, should check pollution levels daily during inversion periods and take precautionary measures to not get sick, specifically during inversions that last longer than five days. Avoiding asthma triggers, such as smoking, strenuous exercise, various medications, irritants and certain foods during periods of poor air quality are also ways to reduce the number of ER visits during the winter.

Data suggest that it is the length of an inversion rather than the inversion itself that determines whether an asthma sufferer would suffer complications. Simply put, the longer an inversion lasts, the higher likelihood a person with asthma will wind up in an emergency room with serious symptoms.

"... We did find that particulate matter is more likely to reach unhealthy levels during inversions, so people with asthma should still take precaution on those days," Beck said.

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Regular hand-washing also becomes a factor, as those with asthma are further compromised when they associate with people who have upper-respiratory infections, according to the UDOH.

The department plans to use the data collected in its recent analysis to help more people put up with the common, albeit undesirable inversions.

"Our aim now will be to try to uncover the other health impacts of inversions for people with asthma, like doctors' office visits, medication use and even other possible pollutants," said UDOH Health Program specialist Rebecca Jorgensen.

E-mail: wleonard@desnews.com