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How Harmful Is the Air You Breathe?

Asthma image
Air impurities can be bad news for people with asthma. Learn how to protect yourself.

Clean air is an important health concern for all of us. But when you have asthma, air quality indoors and out can make all the differ­ence in the world. Car exhaust, smoke, road dust, and factory emissions can make outdoor air dangerous, while tobacco smoke, dust mites, molds, cock­roaches, pet dander, and household chemicals are just a few of the indoor hazards. Unhealthy air can create a dif­ficult barrier to asthma management.

An asthma trigger is anything that causes symptoms making it difficult to breathe. While an asthma trigger can be many things, from exercise to extreme temperatures to stress, some of the most common triggers are impurities in the air. Being aware of what’s in the air, and the things you can do to reduce your exposure to air impurities, is an important key to living an active and healthy life with asthma.

Protect Yourself Outdoors
People with asthma are particularly sensitive to the health risks of outdoor air pollution. Ozone pollution (smog) and particle pollution (soot), the most common air pollutants, are powerful asthma triggers, as are vehicle exhaust, wood smoke, and fumes.

Because outdoor air quality can be beyond your control, your best defense is knowledge. Knowing the current air quality outside can help you plan your day and make decisions about things like exercise, travel, and outdoor activities. You can’t always see or smell air pol­lution. The best way to stay informed before you leave your home is by check­ing the air quality forecast ( That forecast uses a color-coded air quality index (AQI) that tells you how clean or polluted the air will be.

When the AQI is orange or higher, you should reduce or limit exercise or strenuous activities outdoors. Exercise indoors and save yard work for a day when the forecast is better. If you are unusually sensitive (for example, if you have severe asthma), you may want to reduce prolonged or heavy outdoor exertion if the AQI is at yellow. If the air quality worsens to red or purple, it’s best to just stay inside.

Always avoid exercise near high-traffic areas. Areas within one-third of a mile of a busy highway likely have much more pollution even when the rest of the community has a green air quality forecast. Also, remember that children are at particular risk even if they don’t have asthma. They tend to be more active, breathe faster, and expose their lungs to more pollutants.

Protect Yourself Indoors
Many people don’t know that the air indoors can be even more polluted and harmful than the air outside. Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors. Indoor air can be filled with asthma triggers like cigarette smoke, dust mites, molds, cockroach allergen, pet dander, gases or fumes, household or industrial chemical irritants, and wood smoke.

The best way to protect your family at home is to avoid air pollution in the first place. Make sure no one smokes indoors. Clean surfaces in your home weekly with a damp cloth and a HEPA-filtered vacuum. Eliminate sources of moisture by fixing water leaks and using exhaust fans when showering, cooking, and washing dishes. Keep humidity levels below 50 percent. Put away food, cover trash, and use baits to control pests, like cockroaches. And don’t use scented candles or fragrances to cover up odors.

Ventilation is very important for keeping the air quality in your home as clean as possible. Fresh air needs to come indoors while dirty indoor air needs to go outside. Installing a central air-conditioning unit may be very ben­eficial to people living with asthma. It’s important to maintain your central air-conditioning unit to ensure that it’s bringing fresh air in and removing dirty air to the outdoors. For better ventilation in your home, you should also install and run exhaust fans in the kitchen and bathroom and vent fuel-burning appli­ances, such as gas stoves and heaters, to the outside. Use an exhaust fan or open a window slightly while these appliances are in use. Open windows and use extra exhaust fans when you’re working with paints or chemicals indoors.

By learning how to protect yourself from impurities in the air, you are an­other step closer to better asthma control.


If you have a smartphone, you can check the AQI any time by downloading the American Lung Association’s free State of the Air app. This app gives you current local air quality information and helps you decide what actions to take. For more information on lung health, call the American Lung Association’s Lung HelpLine at (800) 586-4872 or visit

Source: American Lung Association,

This article was originally published in Coping® with Allergies & Asthma magazine, September/October 2013.