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Why volcanic ash can be so detrimental to your health

By Chaffin Mitchell, AccuWeather staff writer

Even if you live within a safe distance from the explosive dangers of a volcano, there is still a significant hazard volcanoes can pose to your health.

Volcanic ash is composed of fine particles of fragmented volcanic rock, which are able to irritate lungs, eyes and airways. People should avoid unnecessary exposure to ash and wear an effective face mask when outside to reduce inhalation of ash particles.

The National Center for Biotechnology Information studied the respiratory health effects of volcanic ash and found acute respiratory symptoms after exposure to volcanic ash. However, no long-term effects were found.

The Week That Was In Asia Photo Gallery

Feb. 19, 2018, school children walk as Mount Sinabung erupts in Karo, North Sumatra, Indonesia. Rumbling Mount Sinabung on the Indonesian island of Sumatra has shot billowing columns of ash more than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) into the atmosphere and hot clouds down its slopes. (AP Photo/Sarianto, File)

Short-term effects commonly include irritation of the eyes and upper airways and exacerbation of pre-existing respiratory disease such as asthma. Prolonged exposure can cause severe inflammation.

Senior Scientific Adviser for the American Lung Association Norman Edelman said effects vary due to many things such as level of exposure.

"The time for 'healing' depends upon the intensity of the inhalation and any underlying lung disease. It is not clear whether there are permanent effects in otherwise normal lungs with moderate inhalation. For example, if it causes an exacerbation of COPD, it may take weeks to return to baseline function," Edelman said.

In some eruptions, ash particles can be so fine that they are inhaled deep into the lungs. With high exposure, even healthy individuals will experience chest discomfort with increased coughing and irritation.

"Volcanic ash is troublesome because it is both particle pollution and acid, as in acid rain, pollution. It causes respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, cough, etc, and exacerbation of pre-existing lung problems such as asthma," Edelman said.

People with existing respiratory problems should take special care to avoid exposure to airborne ash and should carry their medication with them.

Philippines Volcano

Motorists use face masks as volcanic ash from Mayon volcano's eruption partly blanketed Guinobatan township, Albay province, around 340 kilometers (200 miles) southeast of Manila, Philippines, Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2018. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez)

The fine ash particles irritate the airways and cause them to contract, making breathing more difficult in people who already have lung problems. People suffering from asthma or other lung problems, such as bronchitis and emphysema, and severe heart problems are most at risk.

"Inhalation of particles may increase the risk for heart attacks in people with heart disease," Edelman said.

Be sure to wear a mask during and after the ashfall, as particles could still be in the air.

"Particle masks [N95] may be helpful if the ash cannot be avoided. People with chronic lung disease should follow medical instructions if breathing gets worse," Edelman said.

Eye irritation is a health concern as pieces of grit can cause very painful scratches in the front of the eye and conjunctivitis. The conjunctiva is the thin transparent layer of tissue that lines the inner surface of the eyelid and covers the white part of the eye.

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Contact lens wearers need to be especially aware of this problem and leave their lenses out to prevent corneal abrasion from occurring.

"The best defense is to avoid the ash both while it is spewing and during cleanup time," Edelman said.

It is crucial to wear protective clothing, masks and goggles to ensure that ash contact with the body is at a minimum. Volcanic ash can cause skin irritation for some people, especially if the ash is acidic. The main skin symptoms include irritation and reddening of the skin.

Chile Volcano Erupts

Men remove ash from a building's roof, left by the Calbuco volcano, in Ensenada, Chile, Thursday, April 23, 2015. The volcano erupted Wednesday for the first time in more than 42 years. (AP Photo/Pablo Sanhueza Gutierrez)

"When expecting an eruption they should make sure that their medications are available and precautions have been taken to minimize inhalation," Edelman said.

Keep all doors and windows closed whenever possible.

According to the The International Volcanic Health Hazard Network (IVHHN), driving conditions, visibility and air quality can be dramatically affected immediately after ashfall.

The IVHHN recommends that following an ashfall, you refrain from driving and stay indoors if possible. If you must drive, maintain a large distance from the vehicle in front of you and drive slowly.

Additionally, affected communities may experience increased levels of psychological distress. This is particularly the case when eruptions cause social and economic disruption.

For more safety and preparedness tips, visit

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