Asthma and Air Pollution
Photo Credit: AndreyPopov /

Why Bad Air Hurts Your Lungs, and How to Avoid the Effects

Pollution is a major problem across the globe, and while there has been some improvement in some places, it’s still a major health risk in cities. As the air quality index crawls into the danger zone more frequently, the 25 million asthma sufferers in America grow more and more vulnerable to the darker side of the great outdoors.

Exhaust fumes and industrial emissions are incubated by hot weather, but summer smog isn’t the only threat to airways. Since cars and trucks are always moving along the highways, air quality can be poor all year round — in fact, experts estimate that over 40 percent of Americans live in areas with bad air.

Although air pollution can complicate life with asthma, it doesn’t have to prevent you from getting out of the house. However, it’s vital that you pick and choose your activities wisely, recognize air quality warnings, and prepare properly in case problems arise.

What Air Pollution Can Do to Your Airways

Anyone with asthma knows how much changes to the air and environment around them can impact breathing. When winter comes, with its dry and cold air, a scratchy throat is just the beginning: airways can begin to spasm, and wheezing, coughing and shallow breathing are bound to follow.

Likewise, when the air quality dips down, your airways will respond by contracting, inflaming, and producing mucus, often leaving you with an uncomfortable burning sensation on top of the wheezing and gasping. Although thousands of chemicals and compounds can trigger asthma symptoms, there are two main culprits in polluted air:


Ozone is a toxic compound in smog that can trigger asthma attacks, make existing symptoms worse, and even cause children to develop asthma. Exhaust fumes from cars and trucks react with oxygen and sunlight to produce ozone, which accumulates close to the ground, most frequently in big cities with heavy traffic.

Particulate Matter

Haze, smoke, dust and diesel exhaust all contain fine particles that are suspended in the air. When you breathe in that air, those particles can lodge in the lungs, complicating breathing and triggering asthma attacks.

Coal-burning plants, factories, and transport truck exhaust are some of the major sources of particulate matter, and those who live close to the polluting buildings or major motorways are at the biggest risk for problems.

Outdoor air pollution can also interfere with your sensitivity to indoor allergens. After spending time in polluted air, some people find that their airways react more strongly to dust mites, mold and pet dander. So, a spell in polluted air could bring effects that last long after you take refuge indoors.

How to Enjoy the Outdoors in Comfort

Luckily, there are ways to counteract, avoid and overcome the challenges that air pollution poses. The first step is to figure out how your body responds to different levels of poor air quality, and then you can work to reduce your exposure according to what your airways can handle.

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Know Your Sensitivity to Air Pollution

Some people are more sensitive to ozone and particle pollution than others, so instead of assuming how you’ll react on any given day, track your symptoms as the air quality index rises and falls.

  • Keep a journal. Note changes in your asthma symptoms, along with what you ate, what sort of activity you did, what time of day things got bad, and other details that may have had an impact.
  • Track your symptoms during activity, but also over the course of the next day. It’s good to know how exposure to air pollution negatively affects your indoor allergies, which might not be noticeable for several hours.
  • Keep your rescue inhaler on your at all times, especially if you’re not exactly sure how pollution might affect your airways. If your symptoms do act up, you’ll be able to avoid a serious medical situation.

If you know you’ll need to be outdoors on a smoggy day, talk to your doctor about any other precautions you can take to ward off an attack. They might suggest a change in medication, or a change in when you take it.

Keep on Top of Local Reports

When the air quality is at its worst, everybody should try to stay indoors regardless of their lung health. However, for asthma sufferers, even less serious air quality alerts could pose problems.

When you can see a hazy layer of smog, you’ll know to stay in your air-conditioned home, but you can’t always see pollution. Instead of relying on your eyes alone, check in with a reputable environmental service to get the full picture.

Your local weather network should give you clear forecast, along with smog and pollen count, but you can always visit the EPA’s website for a comprehensive breakdown. Take a look at it for a simple, accurate air quality report before you head outside.

Choose a Good Time and Location

There’s no doubt about it: going for a morning walk through a cool forest will have a different effect on your body than a strenuous run through the center of town. But you’ll probably find yourself in between these two extremes most often, and since pollution isn’t always obvious, keep in mind these facts that could make or break your day outside:

  • Ozone is typically worse on hot summer afternoons
  • Particulate matter can be bad all year round, and tends to build up when weather is calm
  • Toxins are higher around major highways and during rush hour
  • Smoke from wood fires or burning vegetation is full of irritating particles

In general, it’s best to avoid busy highways at all times, but also beware of residential streets than overflow with rush hour traffic, ports where big boats come and go, and industrial areas where diesel fumes are more likely.

When air pollution is particularly high, you’ll want to reduce the amount of outside air you breathe. Exercise indoors, and if you do go out, make sure you limit any strenuous activity to the morning, when ozone has not has a chance to build up to dangerous levels. Since your breathing rate goes up as your heart rate goes up, keep the intensity low. Walking for 20 minutes may not be quit the same as running for 40 minutes, but if it keeps your airways comfortable and working well, it’s worth it.