August 13, 2014 Medical Conditions

Asthma and Summer Air Quality Issues

Almost nothing compares to a breath of fresh air in the summer. But, what feels like a cleansing breath can actually be a gulp of irritants that might harm your lungs. Some of these irritants are a result of ozone, a toxic gas composed of oxygen.

There are actually two types of ozone. One occurs naturally in the atmosphere, and the other type, called tropospheric ozone, is caused by air pollution from engines and power plants. Tropospheric ozone levels may increase on hot, sunny days in the late spring, summer, and early fall, making breathing particularly difficult for those with asthma.

Why is my asthma sometimes worse in the summer?
On especially hot days, an “ozone alert” may be issued. This means that people with asthma should avoid breathing outside air as much as possible to stave off allergens and irritants and prevent symptoms like coughing, wheezing, chest discomfort, or a burning feeling in the lungs. As an extra precaution, asthma sufferers should also limit time outdoors, stay in a well-ventilated (ideally, air-conditioned) building, and refrain from engaging in outdoor exercise or strenuous activity.

While ozone irritation is generally worse on hot summer days in the afternoons or evenings, particle air pollution can be bad any time of year and in any weather. In fact, particle levels may be elevated when the weather is calm, as the air pollution has had a chance to accumulate. Levels may be particularly high near busy roads, during rush hour, around factories or industrial areas, when smoke from wood stoves or fireplaces is in the air, and around burning vegetation.

What can I do to avoid ozone and particle pollution?
Unlike foods and other allergens, air pollutants are not easily avoidable. Rather, you need to adapt your lifestyle to try to reduce the effects that unhealthy air can have on your body.

  1. Exercise: Regular exercise is always recommended, especially if you have asthma, as it can help you stay healthy. To avoid aggravating your condition, try to exercise early in the morning in the summer and away from busy roads or industrial areas. On hot, smoggy days, work out indoors. If you’re unable to modify your schedule or location, scale back the intensity. In other words, walk rather than jog or exercise for 20 minutes rather than 30 to reduce the amount of pollution you breathe.
  1. Medicate, if necessary: Know your body’s cues. If you feel asthmatic, stop your activity and rest or do something less intense. Always have your quick-relief medication (usually a rescue inhaler) with you and ready if you need it. If you find that you’re using a rescue inhaler more than twice a week, you might need to take a preventive medication instead or have your dose adjusted. Visit your physician to determine the correct course of action.
  1. Be in the know: You can sometimes determine on your own that the air is polluted when the weather is smoggy or hazy. Often, if an air advisory is in place, your local news coverage will provide that information. They base their report on the air quality index (AQI), which you can easily access.
  1. Hydration and breathing: Drinking plenty of fluids on hot days is important, especially if you suffer from asthma. If you become dehydrated, breathing may be more difficult. Try breathing through your nose rather than your mouth. This will filter the air and raise it to the correct temperature and humidity level. If you have to be outside, you can also wear a face mask to limit your exposure to allergens.

As with any medical condition, the best way to manage your symptoms is to check with your physician. She or he is your most reliable resource for determining what you can do to stay healthy.


References: Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Jane Wilson
About the Author

Jane joined CDPHP in 2007 and has held several positions of increasing responsibility with the Medical Affairs division. She currently serves as the Manager of the Care Management Department. In this role she oversees a team of Registered Nurses and Social Workers who are charged with helping CDPHP members understand their medical treatment plans, improving coordination of service across the continuum of care and addressing the health needs of “the whole person.” Jane is a NYS Registered Nurse. She received her M.B.A. in Health Systems Administration from Union Graduate College and her Bachelor’s degree in Nursing from SUNY Institute of Technology. She also holds an Advanced Certificate in Project Management from Stanford University.

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