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Pulmonary Villain: How Smog Can Escalate Asthma


For people with asthma and allergies, sometimes the very air they breathe can be bad for their health. That’s because a variety of pollutants in our air — collectively called smog — can escalate asthma and allergy symptoms leaving people with these conditions struggling to breathe.

Smog: An Overview

Smog is a type of air pollution that results from a mix of gases and particulates reacting with sunlight. The gases in smog include carbon monoxide (CO), Carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NO2), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs), as well as ozone. The particulates found in smog can include smoke, dust, sand, and pollen.


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In recent years, air pollution has declined somewhat, but a 2010 report says that 175 million people — about 58% of the population — still live where pollution levels frequently make it difficult for some people to breathe.

Particulate Pollution: The Particle Problem

Particulate pollution is created by mechanical processes, like construction and mining, and by chemical processes, like burning fossil fuels. Coal, natural gas, and petroleum products such as gasoline, diesel, and jet fuel are common types of fossil fuels used in the United States.

No matter what the source is, the smaller the particle, the bigger the risk. That’s because particles less than 10 micrometers in diameter, about one quarter the diameter of a human hair, can be inhaled into the lungs and get into the bloodstream, affecting your breathing, and in some cases, your heart function.


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Particle pollution has many serious negative health effects, but it’s especially bad for people with asthma, children in particular. Studies have shown that increases in particulates in the air lead to more hospitalizations for children who have asthma.

The Bad O

Ground-level ozone is another big contributor to the smog problem. This isn’t the “good” ozone layer found high in the atmosphere that protects us from UV rays of the sun. Ground-level ozone is a pollutant produced when sunlight reacts with the chemical fumes our cars and industrial plants churn out. It aggravates asthma, irritates the lungs, and makes it difficult to breathe. Long-term inflammation from breathing in too much ground-level ozone can permanently scar lung tissue.

Staying Safe from Smog

Since it’s usually not practical for most people to just move to a less-polluted area, here are some tips to try:

Safe From Smog

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  • Keep track of the daily air quality index in your area by checking local news reports so you’ll know how high the pollution levels will be that day. When the color-coded alert level reaches the orange level, the air is considered to be unhealthy for sensitive groups. People with respiratory conditions such as asthma, especially children, should take precautions. Stay indoors. If you must go outside, keep activity low and take frequent breaks.
  • Outdoor air pollution can also get inside. Make sure your heat and air conditioning system has a MERV 11 or 12-level filter to screen out particulates. During the spring months, when you’re tempted to open the windows, check air quality levels first. If they’re high, resist the spring air and use a circulating fan instead.
  • If you must go outside when the air quality index is poor, do it in the morning, before the heat of the day generates more smog and ozone, and avoid exercising outdoors.
  • Wear a mask to cover your mouth and nose when you go outside. It can help filter out irritants that aggravate allergy and asthma symptoms.


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