Asthma & How it is affected by Air Pollution

Asthma is a complicated disease the origin and mechanics of which is not completely understood. Simply put, it involves the very small airways that bring air in and out of the lungs. These airways become irritated and swollen when they come in contact with certain triggers (substances known to produce asthmatic reactions or symptoms). The muscles in the vicinity tighten up, thus restricting air flow. Additional air restriction may occur as the airways get filled with liquid, pus, mucus and phlegm. People experiencing these effects subsequently develop trouble with their breathing; such breathing problems may be mild or severe.

Some of the triggers known include cigarette smoke, physical activity, allergies, the flu or colds, and air pollution. Five of the most egregious outdoor pollutants suspected of negatively affecting asthma are nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ground level ozone, carbon monoxide, and particle pollution. Indoors, asthma may also be affected by such things as cockroach droppings, pet dander, dust mites, cigarette smoke, household chemicals, and other pollutants commonly found in most homes.

Common symptoms for asthma include shortness of breath, coughing, tightness in the chest, and wheezing (a high-pitched, gasping-for-breath type of noise). Despite the lack of knowledge, it is suspected that asthma may be genetic (meaning that one is more likely to get it if someone else in the family had it in the past); smoking during pregnancy increases chances of a child getting asthma; exposure to cigarette smoke increases the chance of getting asthma; pollutants at work increase the chances of getting asthma; and air pollution can make asthmatic symptoms worse.

To better understand the air pollution/asthma connection, one has to look closely at the pollutants causing or worsening the effects of asthma. Ground-level ozone, for example, produced when machine-spewed exhaust reacts chemically with sunlight, frequently found in smog, and most prevalent in hot days near high-traffic areas, has been shown to be detrimental to one's breathing capacity (especially during exertion). It is said that about 58% of Americans live in areas with excessive ozone levels.

Particle pollution (the microscopic bits of acid, smoke, dust, soot, dirt, and aerosol droplets float freely in the air people breathe every day) is also thought to make asthma worse. Because they are so small, these substances easily find their way into the lungs, where they trigger allergic reactions and lead to medical problems, including asthma.

The good news is that people can protect themselves from these pollutants through the use of special filters, masks, and something as simple as avoiding the outdoors when these pollutants are found in heaviest concentrations. This is not as easy, however, when it comes to the gases also suspected of making breathing problems worse. Three such gases are carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide. Produced by factories, coal-burning power stations, transportation vehicles, etc., these gases are readily found in most industrialized cities and their long-term health effects have yet to be determined. What is known now is that they appear to make asthma worse, especially for children and people whose respiratory systems have already been compromised.

What can people do to protect themselves from asthma and the air pollution that may be triggering the disease? Some solutions include:

  • Avoid heavily congested traffic areas, especially on hot, sunny days
  • Exercise outdoors in the early morning or in the evenings
  • Avoid the outdoors on dirty air days
  • Avoid using varnish, paints or solvents except in well-ventilated areas; wear a breathing mask when possible.
  • Use an electric starter rather than charcoal lighter fluid when using a grill
  • Pay attention to air quality reports; plan outdoor activities accordingly
  • Use air cleaners when indoor
  • Always have asthma control/prevention devices and meds available (especially if traveling); use them according to directions
  • Support cleaner air initiatives and programs

Read Next: 5 Ways to Reduce Your Pollen Allergies

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