Making the Connection – Asthma and Air Quality

(May 1, 2013)

 “There is nothing worse than watching your child struggle to breathe.”

Rachael Lemire-Murphy, and her two young children, Mia and William, all suffer from asthma.  Seven-year-old Mia has lived with “moderate intermittent asthma” much of her life.  This has meant episodes of painful coughing, sometimes hours long, which rob her of much needed sleep, and a strict daily regimen of medications that attempt to keep serious flare-ups at bay. For Rachel, there is nothing worse than watching your child struggle to breathe.

Mia’s doctor has advised her mother Rachael to monitor the air quality forecast, and on poor air quality days to keep Mia indoors to prevent an asthma attack from occurring.  

“I am hesitant to confirm my children’s participation in even the most basic outdoor activities, which most parents would never second guess, until I know the air is safe to breathe and won’t be the catalyst that could send my son or daughter to the emergency room,” says Rachael.

What frustrates her most is that she knows it doesn’t have to be this way.  

“With safeguards available that would cut down pollution levels and lead to fewer poor air days, there should be no question about what steps Congress should take to help all our kids breathe freely.  For all children, clean air is a right, not a privilege.”

You can help Mia breathe healthier air
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has proposed tough new standards for cleaner gasoline and lower tailpipe pollution. These new standards will significantly cut air pollution from vehicles on our roads, help protect public health and encourage innovation. Tell EPA that you support cleaner gasoline and vehicle standards to protect Mia and millions of children like her.   

Mia Murphy
Mia Murphy, 7

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. For the nearly 26 million Americans with asthma, including 7 million children, unhealthy air can create a difficult barrier to asthma management.  Although asthma can’t be cured, it can be controlled. The Lung Association is here to help you breathe easier by making the connection between air quality - indoor and out - and your asthma.

An asthma “trigger” is anything that causes symptoms making it difficult to breathe.  While an asthma trigger can be many things, from exercise, extreme temperatures, to even stress, some of the most common triggers are impurities in the air.  Being aware of what’s in the air, and things you can do to reduce the risk 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, the 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 time spent outside that will best protect your health.  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 can help you know how clean or polluted the air will be.

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.

Here are some tips to protecting yourself outdoors:

  • Reduce or limit exercise or strenuous activities outdoors when the AQI is orange or higher.  Exercise indoors and save yard work for a day when the forecast is better;
  • If you are unusually sensitive (for example, people with more 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, avoid outdoor activities;  
  • Always avoid exercise near high-traffic areas. Areas within 1/3 mile of a busy highway likely have much more pollution even when the rest of the community has a green air quality forecast.

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. Here are some of the most important steps you can take:

  • Make sure no one smokes indoors.
  • Clean surfaces in your home weekly with a damp cloth and HEPA-filtered vacuum. 
  • Eliminate sources of moisture by fixing water leaks and using exhaust fans when showering, cooking or washing dishes. 
  • Keep humidity levels below 50 percent.  
  • Put away food, cover trash and use baits to control pests, like cockroaches
  • Don’t use scented candles or fragrances to cover up odors.

Take action
You can help fight for healthier air, increased asthma research or protect health services for people with asthma by becoming an Asthma Advocate.  You can also support the work of the American Lung Association by making a donation, and getting involved as a volunteer.

Related links:
Understanding Asthma
Asthma Management
Reducing Asthma Triggers
Asthma & Children
Creating Asthma-Friendly Environments
Becoming an Asthma Advocate
For Health Professionals and Volunteers

Have questions about your lung health? Ask an expert. Call the Lung HelpLine at 1-800 LUNG-USA.