Air Quality Alerts: Symptoms and signs of health complications to be aware of

Air quality advisories are in effect Tuesday for up to 100 million people in the United States, from the Midwest and Texas to the Northeast, including Boston, New York and Philadelphia.

In the Northeast, poor air quality is the result of wildfires raging in eastern Canada, sending smoke wafting across the United States. In some areas, the smoke is so thick that people can smell it in the air and the sky appears hazy.

Beyond the Northeast, high concentrations of ground-level ozone, also known as smog, are driving unhealthy levels of air quality in a number of urban areas across the country.

What are the causes of poor air quality?

Poor air quality can be caused by any airborne irritant, a particle or substance in the air that is bad for a person to breathe, according to Dr. Purvi Parikh, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, an advocacy group for people with asthma, allergies and related conditions.

Some examples are air pollution, including from vehicles and carbon emissions, as well as rising ozone levels, Parikh said.

Natural disasters, such as wildfires, often cause short-term spikes in poor air quality as smoke, which contains carbon monoxide and other hazardous chemicals, enters the atmosphere.

All of these things can be harmful because they can cause particulate matter that if you breathe in, can go deep into your lungs, he said.

The Environmental Protection Agency uses the Air Quality Index to report air quality. It ranges from 0 to over 300, with levels 50 and below considered the healthiest. When levels go above 150, the general population can start experiencing symptoms.

Smoke from wildfires in Canada wafts through upstate New York on Tuesday.NOAA

How can bad air quality harm your health?

Many of the health problems people see from poor air quality, in general, can overlap with health problems people see from wildfire smoke, said Massachusetts General Hospital physician Dr. Wynne Armand and associate director of the MGH Center for the Environment and Health.

Air pollution from smoke from wildfires can make breathing difficult for anyone, but especially young children, the elderly, pregnant women and people with asthma or other pre-existing respiratory conditions, he said.

In the short term, it can also cause eye, nose, throat and lung irritation, as well as an increased risk of respiratory infection.

Long-term exposure to air pollution is associated with several chronic health conditions, including:

  • Severe asthma
  • Premature birth
  • Heart disease
  • Hit
  • Lung cancer
  • Dementia
  • Low IQ in children

Smoking can be especially dangerous for pregnant women because they usually have reduced lung capacity due to their growing bellies, Parikh said.

How can I protect myself when the air quality is bad?

Experts have advised that you check air quality advisories regularly. AirNow.gov, the EPA’s website, allows people to monitor air quality by entering their zip codes. Many smartphones have apps that also monitor air quality.

Brady Scott, a member of the American Association for Respiratory Care, a professional organization for respiratory therapists, has recommended that people stay indoors as much as possible, with doors and windows closed. This includes activities such as exercise, which can put stress on the lungs.

People with respiratory health issues, including asthma, should monitor their symptoms closely, he added. They should also make sure their medications, such as inhalers, are available or have not expired.

People know their own bodies very well. If they see some changes that they believe are related to bad air, perhaps they need to contact a doctor or advanced practice provider, Scott said.

People watch smoke-covered Montreal from the chalet atop Mont-Royal on Monday.Andrei Ivanov / AFP – Getty Images

Parikh advised people to keep their homes well ventilated. People who need to go outside can wear a mask, such as an N95 respirator, which helps filter out particulate matter in the air, she said.

Believe it or not, masking just like we’ve done with Covid can be helpful to act as a barrier between you and reduce the amount of particulate matter you breathe in, he said.

Armand advised against dusting or mowing the lawn on days when the air quality is poor. Lighting candles or using a gas heater can also contribute to poor air quality these days.

People should seek medical attention if they experience a cough, difficulty breathing, chest pain or wheezing, or hear a whistling in their chest, Parikh said.

Is poor air quality bad for pets?

Absolutely, according to Parikh.

Other mammals suffer from many of the same lung conditions as humans, he said.

Scott said people should keep their pets like cats and dogs indoors as much as possible.

If pets are outside, running outside, or spending most of their time outside, it seems like it would likely create some irritation in their breathing and also in their airways and lungs, she said.

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