How air quality affects our health
Air quality is a rating system that is used to measure the levels of irritants in the air. It uses an index of 0 to 300, and when levels approach and exceed 150 people may begin to experience adverse effects. Some irritants include air pollution, elevated ozone levels and airborne particulates.
While air pollution and ozone levels are more commonplace, special events like natural disasters can cause short-term spikes in pollutant levels. Wildfires often cause smoke to enter the atmosphere and can affect the air quality of surrounding areas as they release carbon monoxide and other chemicals into the air.
Other pollutants include small particulate matter, which are extremely tiny particles that are easily inhaled. The problem with these is that when the air includes high levels of these particles, we can inhale them deep into our lungs, where they enter our bloodstream.
But how does this affect our health?
“Significantly,” says Tejas Raval, MD, an ear, nose and throat provider in our Richmond market. “Both acutely with patients who have asthma, allergies or other respiratory conditions.”
When air quality index levels rise, even with short-term exposure, people in the general population may begin to experience symptoms that can depend on the primary pollutant in the air. With wildfire smoke, symptoms might mock those of allergies, such as a cough, shortness of breath, headaches and irritated eyes, nose, throat and lungs. If you have a chronic health condition like asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), your symptoms could get worse.
“Airborne irritants will cause inflammation in our airways, including in our nose, sinuses, throat and into the lungs,” Dr. Raval says.
The longer you’re exposed to unhealthy air, the higher your chances are of developing more ongoing problems. Studies show that people who live in areas that commonly have higher levels of air pollution are more likely to have asthma or develop chronic health conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, dementia and other respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.
Long-term exposure to air pollution can cause similar lung damage to that of cigarette smoke. Dr. Raval says that this can result in “changes in the lungs of healthy patients who simply live in polluted areas, even if they never smoked.”
Who’s at risk?
While everyone is at risk, others are more susceptible to developing symptoms and adverse reactions. Children, pregnant women, older adults and people with chronic respiratory conditions are most likely to experience symptoms.
Pregnant women are at increased risk when it comes to smoke pollution because they have diminished lung capacity, and studies have shown that longer-term exposure to air pollution can lead to low birth weight, miscarriage, gestational diabetes and stillbirth. Children, especially younger than 5, are more at risk because they breathe faster and their smaller airways are more easily inflamed.
However, when the air quality index is in the unhealthy range or higher, everyone needs to consider their exposure.
“Even healthy people should take precautions,” Dr. Raval says.
What to do and what to avoid
While you can’t change the air quality in your area in the short term, you can change your behavior. Spending time inside can help provide relief from poor air quality, especially if you can use an air filter with an air conditioner or HVAC system or an air purifier. And although they won’t completely protect you from certain particulates, wearing a mask, such as an N95, can help you as well.
“During poor air quality days, indoors is safer,” Dr. Raval says.
However, he adds that people should avoid unnecessary outdoor activities when the air quality index is high. And even if you are inside, don’t leave windows and doors open in your home. Exercising outdoor should also be avoided, because it can cause additional stress on the lungs.
When to see your health care provider
Air pollution can cause negative health effects such as itchy eyes, sore throat and nose and lung irritation. If these worsen or begin to turn into a respiratory infection, you may want to see your primary care provider. However, if you begin to have trouble breathing or experience dizziness or chest pain, you should go to an emergency room.
Learn about the ear, nose and throat services we provide at Bon Secours.