Can bad air quality make it hard to breathe?

In this blog post, we will discuss “Can bad air quality make it hard to breathe?” First, we will discuss the basics of air pollution. Then, we will understand the meaning of AQI and its importance. An explanation of the concept of inhalation of bad air quality by your respiratory system will follow this. In the end, the article will provide you with the solutions to mitigate the bad air quality.

Can bad air quality make it hard to breathe?

Yes, bad air quality makes it difficult to breathe. Besides breathing issues, the other symptoms are listed below:

  • Dizziness and confusion
  • Chest and nose congestion
  • Sore throat and throat irritation
  • Fatigue and disturbed mental peace
  • Coughing, sneezing and wheezing

Let’s first discuss air pollution.

What is air pollution?

The introduction of harmful agents into the atmosphere is known as air pollution. The toxic agents are known as pollutants. These pollutants are derived from natural and human activities, and they can be chemical or biological.

Major pollutants present in the air are particulate matter (PM), ground-level ozone (O3), NO2, SO2, and CO. Air also has lead, allergens, bacteria, viruses and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Besides climate change, air pollution has become a significant environmental risk to human health. 

Therefore, striving towards minimising air pollution can also help to improve climate change mitigation efforts. In addition, reducing emissions will enhance the quality of air.

WHO has suggested some revised guidelines on 22 September 2021 to improve the overall air quality. This organisation has decided to implement permissible limits of the earlier significant pollutants.

These permissible limits of ambient air quality are as follows:

PollutantsHourly mean concentration (ug/m-3)Annual mean concentration (ug/m-3)
PM2.5155
PM104515
NO22510
SO240
CO4
O38 hour: 100Peak season: 60

What is AQI, and what levels make it unhealthy?

Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has determined the air quality index (AQI) to know the air quality you inhale. The table given below will show how the air quality index looks like.

Air Quality Index (AQI)Levels of Health Concern
(When the AQI is in this range)(air quality conditions are)
0 to 50Good           
51 to 100Moderate
101 to 150Unhealthy for Sensitive group
151 to 200Unhealthy
201 to 300Very Unhealthy
301 to 500Hazardous

The primary purpose of AQI is to inform residents about the impact of local air quality on their health. The Environment Protection Agency calculates the AQI for five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

The meaning of the Air quality index as mentioned earlier categories are as follows:

Meaning
Air quality is considered satisfactory; air pollution is of little or no risk.
Air quality is acceptable; some pollutants present in the air might be dangerous for a minority of people who are very sensitive to air pollution.
Members of sensitive groups may get ill effects. However, the general public is likely not to get affected.
This air quality level can pose a threat to everyone. However, members of sensitive people may experience more severe effects.
Emergency level of air quality; Entire population might be affected
Health alert: Every person breathing such air quality may get serious health issues.

 Thus, it is clear that excluding the first two levels are relatively good to venture out and to do various outdoor activities. However, the last three levels will give you or other adverse effects by inhaling dirty air. 

Now, let’s see why air pollution makes it hard to breathe.

Why air pollution affects my breathing efficiency?

Imagine going out to the busiest part of your city, where there is a road junction full of vehicular traffic and people constantly commuting to their destinations. In addition, along its sideways, new construction activity is taking place or maybe,  just a wildfire smoke of Central Canada lingering far away into your area. You felt choked, right? Well, I felt almost suffocated after reading the above situation.

Rapid progress increased human activities, and rapid urbanization has led to elevated ambient air pollution levels. High levels of ambient air pollution have posed a threat to human life. Not just this—indoor air quality has also proved to be equally fatal.

As per the World Health Organisation (WHO), filthy air quality leads to seven million deaths per year. The World Economic Forum has stated that air pollution stands fourth to kill most of the people in the world. The WHO has also noted that around 4.2 million deaths occur per year due to ambient or outdoor air pollution exposure. In addition, they revealed that 3.8 million deaths happen every year due to poor indoor air quality.

Coming to the United States of America, various airborne pollutants have played a significant role in human health issues. The EPA has claimed that in 2020, anthropogenic and natural activities released about 68 million toxic gases into the atmosphere in the United States. At the latest, the American Lung Association has further revealed that more than 135 million Americans live with polluted air.

Many scientific studies have observed that the polluted air you take in affects your body in multiple ways. The main systems affected due to air pollution are the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. Contaminants such as particulate matter can be hazardous for respiration.

The particulate matters are microscopic particles originating from the combustion of fossil fuels, construction and mining activities, volcanic eruptions, wildfire smoke, etc. As per the WHO, particulate matter of size or less than 2.5 micrometres (PM2.5) is classified as carcinogens. This is because these tiny particles are even less than the diameter of the human hair.

Lungs are the two big sponge-like tissues that help you breathe and function your body correctly, and it is present in the thoracic cavity of the chest. Lungs are part of the respiratory system of our body. There is a reason why lungs are also known as trees of a human body system. Besides lungs, your nose, pharynx, larynx, trachea and bronchi are part of the respiratory system.

When you inhale such a cocktail of pollutants, it affects your lungs first. Some microscopic particles, such as particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10), can deeply penetrate your lungs. These particles have a unique ability to anchor into your lung muscles, which causes chest irritation. Further, these pollutants, along with oxygen, get absorbed into the bloodstream. In addition to it, intake of elevated levels can make your airways dry and irritated too.

As we inhale oxygen and unwanted airborne pollutants, the mucus and hair in your nose set the inhaled air into the right temperature and humidity levels. It makes it compatible for your lungs to take in. However, your nose also acts as an in-built air purifier. It traps unwanted foreign particles such as dust and dirt.

Generally, your body’s natural defence system is to sneeze off or cough out these unwanted alien particles. However, some air pollutants or foreign matters do not get easily filtered off as they are fine and ultrafine size in nature. Medical sciences have also proved that your throat and nose are lined with glands that produce snot or mucus. The primary purpose of the nasal mucus is to keep the linings of your nose and sinuses adequately moist, trap the dust and other pollutants you take in, and fight infections and irritation.

The new investigations published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Molecular Biology further revealed that urban residents are contracting sinus conditions because of the industries and urbanization. In addition, microscopic particles such as soot, ash, etc., can also change the biology of the upper respiratory tract.

To understand the biology and dynamics of the response of the upper respiratory system to air quality more, Dr Ramanathan with his team experimented on 38 mice. Out of 38 mice, nineteen were exposed to the filtered air, while the remaining were kept in contact with polluted air whose concentrations were similar to Baltimore. The team carried out this activity for about 16 weeks.

After the 16 week exposure to different types of air quality, the research team cleaned their nasal passages and sinuses with water, and they examined this drained water under a microscope. Dr Ramanathan and his teammates found out that the fluid contains mucus and white blood cells. Thus, they proved that the fluid’s secretion of white blood cells represented inflammation and cold-like infection in the nose and sinuses.

Further, the research team also examined the inner lining of the airway tract under the microscope. After the examination, they stated that the epithelium layer was 30 to 40% thick than the mice which inhaled filtered air. Thus, these studies can tell that the inner linings of the upper respiratory system get swollen due to the inhalation of pollutants.

Additionally, medical research in the ENT field noticed that inflammation of the epithelial linings causes the generation of snot or mucus into the sinus, nose and mouth. While they trapped the contaminants, it also created blockages in nasal passages; the sinuses cavities were filled with mucus. Additionally, the slime dripping from the nose into the throat results in throat irritation. Elevated levels of the contaminants secrete more mucus and create blockages in the upper respiratory system.  Thus, the conditions such as sinusitis caused due to poor air quality make it hard to breathe.

Discussing the effects of pollutants on the lungs or lower respiratory system again, they irritate the linings of the lungs. The lining of your lungs is made up of antioxidant materials. They get damaged and inflamed when they come in contact with the contaminants. Thus the accumulation of microscopic particles or highly reactive toxic agents such as ground-level ozone in the lungs can make you feel congested and result in chest pain.

Thus, the article summarises that air pollution disrupts the proper functioning of the whole respiratory system, which can make it challenging to inhale appropriately and can also create shortness of breath. In addition, less oxygen supply to your brain can make you stressed, irritated, anxious, dizzy and confused.

But don’t worry, in the next section, I will provide you with detailed solutions to minimize the air quality.

What can I do to protect myself from air pollution?

I will elaborate on some of the measures to protect yourself from air pollution.

Personal Hygiene

You can also fight the effects of air pollution by maintaining personal hygiene:

  • You can cut your nails short to avoid the accumulation of dirt. 
  • You can also practice mouth gargling after coming home to free your mouth from unwanted guests.
  • You can also brush twice a day to keep airborne infections at bay.
  • You can also take steam therapy at home to cleanse your lungs.

Quit Smoking

Smoking cigarettes, hookahs (shisha), electric vape or any other types of cigars are not at all suitable for your health. It’s best to stop smoking. Active and passive smoking provides the direct entry of harmful pollutants into your body. This causes the risk to your respiration and other organs dependent on it. 

Physical Exercise 

Physical activities have many benefits to your body. It not only improves your stamina and immunity levels but also helps to increase your lung capacity. Yoga, sanas, swimming, running, cycling, brisk walking and dancing are some of the best forms of exercise to improve your health.

Breathing Exercise 

The majority of people in the world don’t breathe properly. However, correct breathing techniques can keep illnesses due to air pollution at bay. A pranayama is a form of yoga asana which helps to improve breathing methods and lung functionality.

Some of the pranayama types that help you fight air pollution are Kapalbhati, Anulom Vilom, Chandra Nadi, Surya Nadi and Bhastrika. It is strongly recommended to learn this art of breath from a well-certified yoga trainer. 

You can also increase your lung muscles by simply taking a deep breath and holding it for a count of 10. Then, slowly breathe out the air. If you can keep your breath for a longer time, then you have good lungs health.

Good diet 

Always go for a well-balanced diet to remain fit and strong. Consistent eating of junk and fast food will increase the risk of obesity and other diseases. In addition, such people are more vulnerable to the adverse effects of air pollution. Instead, add more fresh veggies and fruits to your diet. Also, you can consume less meat to minimise carbon footprints.

You can also add anti-inflammatory foods as these types of food help to cleanse your lungs effectively. Anti-inflammatory foods which I recommend are: 

Immunity booster drinks

You can do your immunity booster drinks by using readily available items in your kitchen. Immunity booster drinks help to cleanse your lungs. Some of the DIY immunity booster drinks are as follows:

  • Take a glass of warm white milk. Add half a teaspoon of turmeric powder to it. Also, add two strands of saffron to it. Drink it at night before sleeping. You will get good sleep, and you will be relieved from chest congestion. 
  • Boil water by adding half cinnamon stick. Drink the spice-infused water once a day. Your sinuses would be cleared up. 
  • Buy an excellent green tea. Prepare a green tea by following the packet instructions. Have it whenever you feel irritation in your throat. 
  • Take some crushed 1 or 2 peppercorns, a half-inch of a blade of lemongrass and 1 inch of grated ginger and half a teaspoon of turmeric powder. Add everything in one glass of boiling water and reduce it to half a glass. Drink two tablespoons of this spice-infused warm water every after three hours. Adding honey is optional. 
  • You can also drink warm water and add honey if you want. Honey helps to relieve throat irritation.

Use Mask

Mask can prevent you from inhaling the polluted air. You would be able to work in contaminated areas without any fear of allergy infections and stress. 

Masks I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
BASE CAMP CROSSDUST MASKEAPI Filter Technology & Advanced NanotechnologyUser FriendlyMore Durable Six layers face maskFilter materials of the dust mask: Double-Layer Melt-blown with Electrostatic Adsorption Performance, Activated carbon, Non-woven Polypropylene
NIOSH approved N95 maskFour layers mask Flexible nose pad, dual strapsDisposable maskEasy to breathe
BASE CAMP Reusable Cloth Face MaskThree layers mask; 100% cotton Skin-friendly and breathablePocket to add additional filterReusable Mask

How can I individually reduce air pollution?

You can always try your level best to minimise air pollution. The following are the methods to reduce air pollution at an individual level.

Plant Trees

Encourage tree plantation drives amongst the communities. You can be a green saviour of your region. Trees are the natural air purifiers of the environment, and it supplies us with clean air.

Municipal councils or the local authorities can develop urban forests to increase the green cover of the locality. They can also plan to create vertical green walls to improve oxygen levels of the region naturally. But don’t forget to plant only indigenous trees. 

Human/ religious celebrations in eco-friendly ways 

Nowadays, many couples celebrate gender (of their baby) revealing parties by bursting firecrackers. But, unfortunately, these firecrackers can transform into massive wildfires if they are burst near trees.

Thus, you can celebrate such celebrations by planting trees in your nearby barren land. Bursting firecrackers on any religious, festive or personal occasion are only going to harm your loved ones. 

You can also celebrate Christmas by not cutting Christmas Trees. Instead, you can buy artificial ones and use them in the coming years too.

Discourage Plastic

Single-use plastic has been one of the major concerns in the environment. Plastic pollution indirectly contributes to the degradation of air quality. Plastic, when burned, releases various toxic gases such as dioxins into the air.

Encourage alternative use of the plastic product. For example, you can wear a cloth bag for shopping. You can also carry your travel cutlery set to a restaurant. Additionally, you can take your water bottle instead of purchasing a packaged drinking water bottle every time.

Use of public transportation 

Increase the use of public transport to reduce air pollution and traffic congestion. You can also try carpooling or the cab sharing option. Then, you can also use bicycles instead of scooters. Lastly, you can always opt for walking a shorter distance. 

Alternative use of fossil fuel

It would be best to try switching to other fuel alternatives. For example, don’t use wood for the fireplace. Instead, you can wear multiple layers of clothes for warmth. In this way, you can conserve energy. Additionally, you can also install solar panels on house roofs to convert solar energy into electricity. 

You can also buy electric and hybrid vehicles to minimise tailpipe emissions. Finally, propose or discuss a plan with your mayor or any relevant local authority to promote your region’s renewable energy sector.

Reduction of personal carbon footprints

You can also keep a check on your carbon footprints. For example, you can delete unwanted photos, videos or emails from clouds and email boxes as and when possible. Unfortunately, this unwanted stuff takes a lot of energy, which indirectly contributes to air pollution.

You can also switch off the lights and electrical appliances of the vacant rooms. Try buying local products instead of imported ones. Be vocal about them. You can also discover your own country rather than travelling to different ones.

Create Awareness

Air pollution is unpredictable; air pollution in your vicinity can affect people living in Asia and vice-a-versa. However, you can create public awareness about air pollution amongst your community by teaching and interacting with your kids about the importance of good air. 

Educate youth by telling them the ill effects of poor air quality. Then, let your country’s future know that they deserve a better place to live!

How can the local authorities improve the air quality of your region?

You can always observe the changes happening in your surrounding nature. If you experience bad air quality or any activities producing air pollution, you can always concern relevant local authorities or the mayor.

Here are some methods which local authorities can do.

Proper disposal of waste 

Improper solid waste management of an area is an invitation to many diseases and infections. In addition, burning solid waste in public can cause air pollution, although such practices are rare in the US. 

The wastes are mainly disposed of in the engineered landfills and recycled before final disposal to landfills and waste incinerators. 

In addition, waste incinerators help to convert waste into energy.

However, many researchers have claimed that gasification technology or waste-to-energy technology may release harmful gaseous contaminants. Thus, it is necessary that waste collectors rigorously segregate the waste before sending it to waste incinerators. 

The best solution is to minimise waste at a personal level. Statistically, 70% of the waste generated can be recycled effectively. Thus, strive to recycle your waste at a personal level as much as possible.

Reducing air pollution from agriculture

Stubble burning is still practised in some parts of the US. This event contributes to the degradation of air. Local authorities can help farmers convert this waste into cattle fodder or be transformed into pellets as fuel. In addition, farmers should stop the usage of harmful pesticides or fertilisers to decrease air pollution.

How can I reduce indoor air pollution?

Maintaining household or indoor hygiene

You can decrease poor air quality by adequately maintaining indoor hygiene. For example, you can frequently clean your cupboards and open decks to avoid an accumulation of dust particles. You can then vacuum your carpets and sofas at least twice a week. 

Make sure your doggies and cats are well-groomed. Use chimneys and exhaust fans in kitchens. You can also install an exhaust fan in washrooms. Always make sure you are keeping your house well ventilated. 

Keep doors and windows open when possible. Maintain the health of electric appliances such as heaters, humidifiers, AC, fans, air ducts and so on at regular intervals of the year. Avoid overuse of strong perfumes or strong scented candles indoors. You can additionally use indoor plants to make your indoors more lively and fresh.

Indoor plants

Indoor plants do the same work as outdoor ones- they help to purify indoor air naturally. These indoor plants are also easy to maintain.

The indoor plants which I recommend are as follows: 

Air purifiers

Air purifiers help to improve indoor air quality. The risk of getting air pollution-related diseases decreases due to the use of air purifiers. Air purifiers having good HEPA filters do an adequate job of filtering pollutants.

Air Purifiers I recommend are as follows:

NameWhy I recommend it
Blueair Pro XL Air Purifier99.7% of airborne pollutants such as mould, allergens, smoke particles and pollens are captured. 
AIRMEGA 400SReduction of 99.97% of particulates of 0.3 microns. Also responsible for reducing more than 99% of VOCs, NH3 and CH3CHO.Washable and permanent pre-filters are available 
Blueair Pure 121Includes 3-part filtration system. Captures 99% of common airborne PM 2.5 pollutants such as allergens, odours, smoke, mould spores, dust mites and pet dander.An activated carbon filter removes common odours caused by smoke, pets, and gases (VOCs) and smoke caused by wildfires.

Humidifiers

The humidity levels in the office should be maintained between 30 and 50% in the office. This range helps to keep dust mites, mould and other allergens under control. In addition, when AC or heater makes the air in the room dry, humidifiers can maintain correct humidity levels.

Humidifiers I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
Amazon Basics Ultrasonic Cool Mist Humidifier 4 litre of tank capacityAuto shut-off feature and 12 or 24-hour timer settingsIt can be used in both seasons
MOVTIP HumidifierPortable Mini-humidifier500 ml capacity, still produces longer mistsEasy to operate
LEVOIT HumidifierIt can be used for both seasons6 litres of capacity Easy to clean and has a remote control

Dehumidifiers 

Dehumidifiers also work similarly to humidifiers. It controls the high levels of humidity in the office.

Dehumidifiers I recommend

Name Why I recommend it
Pro Breeze DehumidifierCan extract 50 pints of moisture a dayEnergy-saving auto-off systemBuilt-in Humidity sensor
HOmeLabs DehumidifierEliminates moistness, odour controllerEasy to cleanRemovable water tank
TCL Portable Dehumidifier20 pints of moisture removed per dayIt can be operated at low temperatures tooEasy to maintain

Other FAQs about Air Quality that you may be interested in.

Can poor air quality cause cold-like symptoms?

Can poor air quality make you tired?

Can bad air quality make you dizzy?

Conclusion

In this blog post, we discussed, “Can bad air quality make it hard to breathe?” First, we discussed the basics of air pollution. Then, we understood the meaning of AQI and its importance. This was followed by explaining the concept of inhalation of bad air quality by your respiratory system. In the end, the article provided you with the solutions to mitigate the bad air quality.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs): Can bad air quality make it hard to breathe?

What are the symptoms of poor air quality?

The symptoms of poor air quality are as follows:

  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Wheezing

How do you breathe in poor air quality?

It would be best if you breathed through your nose when in contact with poor air quality. Your nose is your in-built air filter. The nose’s job is to bring the inhaled air to the right temperature and the correct humidity level for your lungs. If you breathe through your mouth, you are taking in all unfiltered, dirty air inside. In addition to it, you should remain frequently hydrated.

What does bad air quality due to lungs?

When you inhale bad air quality, it affects your lungs severely. The pollutants can impair the lungs functionality, and it can affect your breathing efficiency.

Does wearing a mask help with poor air quality?

Yes, wearing a good quality mask is hugely beneficial in poor air quality. However, you should thoroughly and adequately cover the mouth and nose.

Who is sensitive to bad air quality?

The following people are sensitive to bad air quality:

  • Socio-economically marginalized people
  • Women and children
  • Senior citizens
  • People having a medical history
  • Immunity compromised people and pregnant women 

Do inhalers help with air pollution?

Yes, inhalers can help with air pollution. Scientists have now developed an inhaler that can protect the lungs against poor air quality. Inhalers can avoid many of the air pollution’s worst effects after using it.

Reference

Air Pollution. World Health Organization. Available at: https://www.who.int/health-topics/air-pollution#tab=tab_1  

Air Quality – National Summary. EPA. Available at: https://www.epa.gov/air-trends/air-quality-national-summary#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20about%2068%20million,atmosphere%20in%20the%20United%20States.&text=The%20graph%20below%20shows%20that,population%20grew%20by%2046%20percent.

Causes and effects of Indoor Air Pollution. British Lung Foundation. Available at: https://www.blf.org.uk/support-for-you/indoor-air-pollution/causes-and-effects

Lake, L., 2017. Airsickness: Common air pollution ailments you need to know. Air Filters for Clean Air. Available at: https://cleanair.camfil.us/2017/04/07/air-sickness-common-air-pollution-ailments-need-know/

Lee, N., 2021. 135 million Americans are breathing unhealthy air, American Lung Association says. CNBC. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2021/04/22/heres-how-many-americans-are-effected-by-air-pollution-every-year.html

London, N.R., Lina, I. & Ramanathan, M., 2018. Aeroallergens, air pollutants, and chronic rhinitis and rhinosinusitis. World Journal of Otorhinolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, 4(3), pp.209–215.

Lung.org. 2021. Particle Pollution. [online] Available at https://www.lung.org/clean-air/outdoors/what-makes-air-unhealthy/particle-pollution

Rapaport, L., 2020. Air pollution may aggravate nasal suffering with colds and seasonal allergies. Reuters. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-health-pollution-rhinitis-idUSKBN2072RX

Respiratory Health Association. 2021. Understanding Air Pollution – Respiratory Health Association. [online] Available at https://resphealth.org/clean-air/understanding-air-pollution/

Roland, J., 2018. Do I have allergies or a cold? Healthline. Available at: https://www.healthline.com/health/allergies/allergies-or-cold#cold

The lung association. 2016. How Your Lungs Work. [online] Available at https://www.lung.ca/lung-health/lung-info/how-your-lungs-work

U.S. EPA. Air Quality Criteria for Particulate Matter, October 2004.

U.S. EPA. Integrated Science Assessment for Particulate Matter (Final Report). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, DC, EPA/600/R-08/139F, 2009. Available at http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncea/cfm/recordisplay.cfm?deid=216546.

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