A walk through Bear Creek Park with your dog is usually a pleasant experience, except recently when the smoke reaches unhealthy levels.

A walk through Bear Creek Park with your dog is usually a pleasant experience, except recently when the smoke reaches unhealthy levels.

"I'm probably not being smart being out here, but my dog's having panic attacks being inside so much," said Alice DiMicele, a 48-year-old Medford woman who was taking her pooch Roxy Ann for a walk through the park Wednesday.

Just how dangerous is that smoke that we're all breathing?

Health experts say it's bad for those with chronic respiratory and heart problems, but what about the rest of the population?

"I feel it a bit in my lungs, and it's a little itchy in my throat," DiMicele said.

"If I could avoid it, I would avoid it. It's really uncomfortable."

DiMicele said she doesn't have a paper mask yet but agrees it would be a good idea.

Others are donning masks when they venture out.

"I'm wearing a mask when I go back and forth from my office to the hospital," said Grant Walker, spokesman for Asante Rogue Regional Medical Center. "It's worse here than Shanghai."

Walker said both Three Rivers hospital in Grants Pass and RRMC have seen a moderate increase in patients seeking medical help for ailments related to the smoke, particularly those with asthma or chronic lung illnesses.

He said the hospital is concerned that people will become acclimated to the smoke and decide to forgo wearing a mask. Health officials recommend wearing a mask that states "NIOSH N95" to filter out most of the very fine particles that travel deep into the lungs.

Most people shouldn't suffer long-term effects from the air pollution even if they don't wear a mask, said Dr. Somnath Ghosh, a pulmonary and critical care specialist at RRMC.

He said he doesn't wear a mask, noting that most people without respiratory or cardiology problems should feel only short-term problems from exposure to the smoke.

"I would not say that a mask was necessary," Ghosh said. "If you're involved in strenuous or persistent activity, it wouldn't hurt to put that on."

Ghosh said the emergency room has seen an increase in patients with asthma or other respiratory conditions that have been exacerbated by the smoke.

Ghosh said a study in the 1990s looked at the rate of lung cancer in urban firefighters exposed to toxic substances on a habitual basis over many years. Long-term exposure resulted in a risk of cancer three times the national average, he said.

A few weeks or months of exposure to smoky conditions locally shouldn't carry any significant risk of long-term health problems, Ghosh said.

For those with respiratory or heart problems, they should just stay indoors as much as possible, he said.

David Farrer, public health toxicologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said most people without respiratory or heart problems shouldn't experience long-term issues from inhaling the smoke.

"Generally speaking, an exposure to wildfire smoke for a few weeks or a couple of months is not going to increase the overall lifetime risks of cancer or asthma," he said.

Long-term exposure is considered to last at least a year, not weeks or months, Farrer said.

Despite the low risk to otherwise healthy residents, Farrer said people should be prudent and avoid going outdoors when there is heavy smoke.

"If you can hold off going on a run until after the clearing happens, it would be better," he said.

Staying indoors is generally better than wearing a mask outdoors during heavy periods of smoke, he said.

The smoke has limited some outdoor activities in the valley. The Oregon Shakespeare Festival has canceled two shows on its outdoor Elizabethan Stage because of smoke over the last two weeks.

Two of Medford's Wednesday evening concerts at Bear Creek Park Amphitheater have been rescheduled to Aug. 28 and Sept. 6. Junior Giants baseball games and the Park & Play programs also saw cancellations.

Some local stores are even handing out free masks, though not necessarily the ones that offer the most protection.

Other residents keep an eye on the smoke so they can get their morning walk.

"I'm really lucky that I can handle it," said Wayne Ching, a 70-year-old Medford resident. "But it's more difficult for other people with emphysema and other health problems."

Ching walks eight miles a day, from Medford to Phoenix, then back again, traversing Bear Creek Park.

"This isn't as bad as smoking," he concluded. "We have similar problems in the winter when people are burning in their woodstoves."

Ching said he checks weather reports and uses his eyes to determine whether it's safe to walk every morning.

"The only time I don't is when I don't seen the sun or Roxy Ann," he said.

Peering through the haze, Ching tried to locate the familiar peak, looking surprised that it wasn't visible from the park. "I guess you can't see it," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.