Chances are you have heard reporters on the news talking about your local air quality and referencing different colors and levels. You may not have paid very close attention to what was being reported, but your health can depend on knowing and understanding what poor air quality means and how it can affect your body.
Air Quality Levels
Your local air quality levels can change on a daily basis, with some times during the year producing more bad air days than others. Ignoring the air quality alerts that are provided during the worst times of the year can cause health problems, especially in sensitive groups, such as children and the elderly. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (or EPA) uses the Air Quality Index to rate the levels of unhealthy air on a daily basis. These levels range from green, when air quality is good, to maroon, when air quality is bad enough to be hazardous to the health of the general public. The AQI measures four of the main air pollutants to calculate the daily levels. Those pollutants include:
- Ground-level ozone
- Particle pollution
- Carbon monoxide
- Sulfer dioxide
Each of these pollutants contribute to the overall pollution present in any given area where the AQI is used.
The Importance of Knowing the Symptoms
There are certain symptoms that can arise when poor air quality affects your body that you should be aware of. Depending on the air quality levels in your area, you could experience symptoms within just a few hours or several days after breathing the unhealthy air. By being aware of the symptoms that you may experience on air quality alert days, you can determine whether or not to venture outside or to stay put inside where you can control the quality of your air.
Irritated Respiratory System
When pollution levels are high and air quality alerts are in place, many people may experience an irritation of their respiratory system. This can result in coughing, sore throat, tightness of the chest, irritation of the airways, and even chest pain. If you experience any of these symptoms, it is best to reduce any activities that must be performed outdoors, or simply stay inside.
Reduced Lung Function
Prolonged exposure to bad air can negatively impact your lungs, making it more difficult to breathe than normal. Some people report noticing their breathing becoming more rapid and shallow when air quality is poor. Exercising during air quality alerts can make this even worse, causing breathing to be uncomfortable. It can become more difficult to take deep breaths, or to inhale and exhale as vigorously as you normally would when exerting yourself.
Over time, pollution can cause permanent damage to the lungs. If inflammation caused by poor air quality is frequent, the lungs can end up with scar tissue due to the shedding of damaged cells. When this happens, people are more susceptible to respiratory illnesses, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, or emphysema.
The increased presence of pollutants in the air can cause an increase in fatigue as well. Many people report feeling sluggish during air quality alerts, especially if they exercise outside and inhale above average amounts of the bad air. Those who compete athletically are often unable to perform at their normal levels, and some may even lose fitness due to the inability to train as they typically would. Anyone who notices fatigue should take time off from overexerting in areas where air quality is bad.
A very common symptom that many people have during times of poor air quality is headaches. The presence of elevated levels of chemicals can cause headaches to occur, sometimes to the point of disability in some people. Along with the irritation of the lungs and respiratory system, pollution can cause the eyes to burn, making it hard for some people to avoid ending up with a headache.
Those people who have cardiovascular problems may end up with an increase in symptoms that could lead to severe issues or even death. Due to the under-oxygenation of blood, the heart can experience irregular rhythms, resulting in chest pain, tightness, or palpitations. Long-term exposure to polluted air can result in the following cardiovascular health problems:
- Coronary artery disease
- Congestive heart failure
- Abnormal heart rhythms
Anyone who already has a heart condition should stay inside and avoid any level of exertion that would increase the intake of pollutants in the air.
Avoiding Unhealthy Air
The best way to stay healthy during an air quality alert is to be aware of the AQI levels and what that means for you. When air is very bad, most media outlets will release the information during broadcasts or online. Armed with important information, you can then determine whether or not to venture outside or if you should hunker down until the air clears.