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Does Air Quality Affect Asthma?

June 16, 2021

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Not only does air quality have an effect on people with asthma, but according to the Asthma Initiative of Michigan (AIM), people under 18 are more susceptible to developing this chronic disease during childhood. In fact, young boys are more likely to have asthma than young girls, as shown here in this 2019 Lifetime Asthma Population Estimates chart by the CDC.

Even adults can develop asthma from prolonged exposure to poor air quality and irritants. In that same chart we mentioned earlier, the genders of those affected are reversed, and adult women are more likely to develop asthma than adult men later on in life.

Sister Hugging Her Brother Who Suffers From Asthma
When adults develop asthma, it's called adult-onset asthma, and compared to children, its symptoms tend to be more persistent, requiring daily medication to keep it under control.

Pollutants affect both outdoor and indoor air quality. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), outdoor air pollutants include various substances of natural origin like dust, mold spores, and pollen, and anthropogenic or human-caused, like carbon monoxide, lead, and ozone.

To help measure and track outdoor air quality, the EPA established a standardized color-coded chart called the "Air Quality Index" or AQI. The AQI measures the quality of air based on six pollutants defined by The Clean Air Act as "criteria air pollutants:"
  • Ground-Level Ozone
  • Particulate Matter
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Lead
  • Sulfur Dioxide
  • Nitrogen Dioxide
The AQI has six categories:

AQI Color-Coded Chart for Ozone and Particle Pollution
In the past, measuring air quality was no easy feat. Even thirty years ago, the idea of measuring smog would've given anyone a headache. You can learn more about the history and the evolution of air quality monitoring and reporting as we move on to discuss more modern approaches.

These days, many online weather reporting websites and apps report the daily outdoor air quality levels using this index. If you wanted to, you could find out right now the quality of your air where you live by entering your zip code on

Keep in mind that the AQI tells the public about "how clean, or polluted" the air is, focusing on possible health effects that, according to the EPA's Patient Exposure and the Air Quality Index article, "may be experienced within a few hours or days after breathing polluted air."

If you have asthma, you need to be extra careful because you will see most people going about their usual routine when the AQI is at 101, and according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, people with asthma can experience health issues even when the AQI is as low as 101. And remember, you may experience these health issues a few hours or even a few days after breathing polluted air.

Cars Producing Outdoor Pollution on the Right and Dust Floating in the Air in a Room on the Left
What factors and precautions should asthmatics and those who are sensitive to poor air quality take into consideration when the AQI is at 101 or higher? We'll be going over what happens inside the lungs of an asthmatic and how air quality may play a factor in their health.

How Air Quality Affects People With Asthma

Asthma is a respiratory disease that cannot be cured; it can only be controlled. According to the American Lung Association, asthma causes three important changes in the lungs that you'd be surprised to know about:
  • The linings in the lungs swell, reducing the available space in the airways.
  • The bands of smooth muscles that surround the airways can tighten and reduce their width.
  • The airways produce an excess of mucus, which greatly reduces airflow.
People with asthma have oversensitive airways that react as described above when exposed to pollutants and particles in the air, causing them to wheeze, cough, experience shortness of breath, and even feel their chest tighten.

A Human Lung Showing on Its Left Side the Characteristics of a Normal Lung, and on the Left, the Characteristics of an Asthmatic Lung
That's why people with sensitive airways need to pay special attention to the quality of air in their local area based on the AQI's level of pollutants, which could cause them to have symptoms on any given day.

Yet, many people who have asthma are more likely to experience symptoms while being indoors, and the same goes for those with cardiovascular or respiratory diseases the are often most susceptible as well to the adverse effects of pollution. That's because, when the outside air enters inside buildings and homes through windows, doors, or even outdoor-vented fans, it mixes with the inside air, causing indoor air pollution concentrations to be sometimes "two to five times higher than typical outdoor concentrations," according to the EPA's Indoor Air Quality report.

These experiences that asthmatics face come as no surprise as the EPA states that "Americans, on average, spend approximately 90 percent of their time indoors." If you think about it, we really do spend more time indoors than outdoors, even before the pandemic started. So, how does indoor air quality affect those who have asthma or other respiratory illnesses?

Mother, Father, Daughter and Son on a Couch Watching Something Fun on a Computer

How Indoor Air Quality Affects People With Asthma

People who have asthma find their life altered in many ways because of poor indoor air quality. Suffering from asthma can make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight because it's hard to exercise properly when increased physical activity levels can cause you to run out of breath easily.

Even something that isn't physically demanding, like sleeping, can become problematic if you have asthma. People with asthma can wake up feeling not rested because of the lack of oxygen, which can cause the body to be unable to achieve a night of restorative and reparative deep sleep.

As we mentioned before, there are outdoor air pollutants like pollen, carbon monoxide, and ozone that add to the pollutants already inside homes and buildings. Pollutants that originate inside homes and buildings are referred to as "Indoor Air Pollutants." Many indoor air pollutants contribute to creating a very unhealthy environment, but for this blog, we will focus on those that directly act as "triggers" for people with asthma.

According to the CDC's "Asthma Indoors" article, "... common indoor asthma triggers include environmental tobacco smoke (secondhand smoke), dust mites, mold, cockroaches and other pests, and household pets." All these triggers contribute to adding particles to the air, which can irritate a person's airways when inhaled and even yours if you don't have asthma. For people with asthma, this can cause more than just allergies; their airways can swell up to the point that it becomes really difficult to breathe.

Image of a Cigar on the Left, Then Dust Mites, Mold, a Cockroach, and a Cat, as Common Asthma Triggers
If you wanted to experience what breathing is like, as if you had asthma, you would have to pinch your nose and breathe through a straw for over three minutes to share what they go through during an asthma episode.

Asthma triggers vary from one person to another, and it's vital to discover these triggers early on to help treat and control the disease since, if left unchecked, asthma can cause permanent changes in the airways, referred to as "remodeling," which will make the disease harder to treat.

Since indoor air pollutants are likely to trigger an asthma episode, reducing indoor air pollution and improving indoor air quality is essential for those with asthma and even for your own sake.

How Can You Improve Your Indoor Air Quality?

It's the air you breathe, of course, it's important! To improve your indoor air quality, you need to try and remove or reduce, as much as possible, all the environmental factors that we've mentioned above that trigger an asthma episode.

Here are seven ways to improve indoor air quality and reduce air pollution in your home, so that you can remove or reduce common asthma triggers as much as possible. Here are some things you can do right away to improve your indoor air quality
  • Make sure your home or business is smoke-free.
  • Clean frequently to make sure you get rid of common allergy triggers like dust mites, pet dander, etc.
  • Avoid using cleaning products that are chemically based and produce fumes, like chlorine. Also, avoid those that are heavily scented, which may contain chemicals that might contribute to irritating your airways.
  • Try to get rid of carpeted floors and opt for hardwood or other smooth floorings that will be easier to clean and won't be a cultivating environment for dust mites.
  • Keep your pets out of the bedroom and off the furniture.
  • Use a High-Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filter to remove airborne allergen particles from the air.

  • A Woman Breaking a Cigarette in Two
  • Avoid leaving organic waste or unwashed dishes as they can attract cockroaches. According to the Asthma Initiative of Michigan (AIM), "Studies have shown the higher the concentration of cockroach allergen, the more asthma symptoms children experience." This is because the particles left by cockroaches' carcasses mix with dust and become airborne. So you literally breathe them in.
  • Use dehumidifiers to keep humidity under control and avoid mold.
  • Change your A/C filters regularly to greatly improve your indoor air quality. Your A/C filters remove some of the air pollutants when the air circulates through them. Eventually, all those particles accumulate, and the air filter stops doing its job.
  • Indoor plants can help you improve indoor air quality because plants are nature's air filters. Add some to your home, and they will help you keep your indoor air fresh and free of contaminants.
Wow, that was a long list! Are you wondering how long it would take to implement all those changes and keep up all those practices to ensure your indoor air is of the highest quality? Don't worry; there is a better, easier way.

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