Healthy Air is a Must
Air quality affects the lungs and respiratory system in many ways, and those with COPD must make sure to know the air quality before going out. Although air quality can be bad at any time of year, during the summer when we participate in a lot of outdoor activity in when the COPD community is most at risk for negative effects.
Things that affect air quality
Carbon monoxide, Sulfur dioxide, bad ozone, and particle pollution all affect the air quality in a negative way. The effects of which can cause those of us with COPD to have reduced lung function, making it more difficult/uncomfortable to breathe, causing shortness of breath and fatigue. It also causes damage to the cells, chest tightness and chest pain, making the lungs more susceptible to infection and heart attacks. When air quality is unhealthy, people with COPD require more doctors, ER or hospital visits, use more medication, and are more severely affected by reduced lung function and airway inflammation.1
Air quality can vary from one season to another and the pollutant can be very different. In winter, carbon monoxide may be high, in spring high pollen count can be the culprit. In summer, ozone is often higher, while particle pollution and sulfur dioxide can be high any time of the year. You also need to know that different pollutants are more dangerous depending on the time of day. For instance, ozone levels are higher in the afternoon, carbon monoxide during rush hours, particle pollution and sulfur dioxide can be high any time of day. So before you go out make sure to check the air quality report for your area and take precautions against the offending pollutant so you don't have to make a visit to the ER or your doctor. People with COPD should have a plan for dealing with bad air and follow it carefully when air quality is unhealthy.3
What to know before you go
- Pollen counts are higher in the middle of the day. Therefore, early morning and late evening are the best times to go out. So try to schedule appointments, shopping trips, or outdoor activities for early morning or after sunset.
- Avoid driving in highly congested areas, or in stop and go traffic like during rush hour. Try to avoid driving on the highways during peak travel times, or try to take less-traveled roads. When I go on a trip I do most of my driving at night. Much less traffic and the air quality is better. Also, I keep all windows closed and my air on. Make sure you have your air conditioner filter changed at least twice a year - it will help keep your car's air cleaner.
- If you must go out during times of bad ozone, sulfur dioxide or particle pollution, (like emissions from fireplaces, power plants, factories), wear a mask and spend as little time as possible exposed to the offensive pollution. Those of us who have asthma as well as COPD are especially sensitive to sulfur dioxide. On days when even a small amount of sulfur dioxide is in the air, I don't go out.
- Pollution is not the only air quality concern for people with COPD. Altitudes have a major effect on how we breathe. The lower the altitude the better. Those of us with COPD will find it more difficult living in cities like Albuquerque, Denver, Reno, Salt Lake City, or El Paso, because they're more than 3,000 feet above sea level and the higher the altitude, the lower the oxygen content of the air. COPDers, your lung health is already compromised and the lower the oxygen content of the air, the harder it is to breathe. I moved from Las Cruces, NM (elevation 3,896 feet) to Monroe Mi (elevation 594 feet) and found my breathing improved so much I could once again do my own cleaning and shopping without help. When I was in NM I had a woman come in twice a week to help me with those things.
- Another air quality issue is humidity. The way it effects COPDers can be very different, not every COPDer is the same. Some COPDers feel better with high humidity, and some feel better with low humidity. If humidity is an issue for you, consider whether you want to live in/move to, a dry climate like Arizona or a more humid location like Florida. If humidity or heat is bothersome to your breathing stay indoors, with windows closed and the air conditioner on. Plan any outing or trips during the coolest, less humid time of day. I go out as early as possible or late evening to avoid as much heat/humidity as I can. I also carrier a small battery operated fan, that way if it get too hot or humid I can turn my fan on and circulate the air around my face which help me breathe a little better.
The Environmental Protection Agency has guidelines as to how bad the air quality is and who it will affect.1 You can find a chart on their website. That way when your weather man gives the air alert color you can look on your chart and know what it means for you. My COPD and CHF is so bad that I only go out if the air quality is green or yellow. If it's an orange alert the only time I spend outside is walking to my van and from my van into my destination and wear a mask when walking to and from my van. Red, purple or maroon and it would take a fire to make me leave my clean air, environmentally friendly house.
I learned the importance of paying attention to the air quality several years back. I had three of my granddaughters visiting me for the summer. The day before they were to go home they begged me to take them to the park one last time. Although the air quality was orange, I couldn't say no to them. Well they had a great day, and since I was already on oxygen 24/7 I felt it was ok to stay out with them all day. That night, I was taken by ambulance to the hospital where I spent 5 days, and then another 20 days recuperating at home. I have never disregarded the air quality since.
Rechecking the air quality is the last thing I do before I go out my door. Last week I was all ready to go shopping, I have not been out for a least a month due to the high pollen count, (not good for my asthma). The morning weather man said the pollen was down, and air quality was green. Right before I left the house I checked the air quality online only to find out it went from green to orange, so I stayed home and had my stepdaughter do the shopping for me. I finally got to go out for a Mother's Day luncheon held at my stepdaughter's church, the air quality was green that day. God made sure I got to his house, LOL.
Avoid aggravating your condition, check air quality before you go out and stay indoors on days when the air pollution is high. No matter how slight your COPD is, if you must go out on days other than green or yellow, limit your activities. Don't participate in any activities requiring heavy or prolonged exertion. Examples: "Heavy exertion"--intense activity, (like jogging), that causes you to breathe hard. "Prolonged exertion"--outdoor activity, (like yard work), done for several hours and that makes you breathe slightly hard. Stay inside on days when the air quality alert is red, purple, or maroon. If you need help in finding out the air quality in your area you can get any information you need from the Environmental Protection Agency AirNow website. They list the air quality for each state and county and what the offending pollutant is so you'll know what actions you need to take to stay protected. You can also sign up for EnviroFlash, and your state or local air quality agency will notify you about air quality in your area.2
By taking a few easy steps you can reduce your exposure to unhealthy air and save a trip to the ER and a stay in the hospital. So next time before you venture out your door, make sure to check the air quality so you can enjoy your day's outing without fear of polluted air causing more damage to your already compromised lungs and respiratory system. Be mindful of the air quality and breathe deep and easy.
Editor’s Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on March 2, 2018, Mary Ultes passed away. Mary was an engaged advocate for the COPD community who strived to help people live fulfilling lives. She is deeply missed.
Do you live with any sleep disorders (eg. insomnia, RLS, sleep apnea) in addition to COPD?