The impact of air quality on the lungs and body

Breathe healthy, be healthy

Story by Sheila Paz

Breathe in, breathe out. You have just taken in half a liter of air. In one minute you will breathe about 12 to 16 times. You will have breathed about 11 million liters of air in an entire day. 

That’s a lot of air, and with that amount of air can come diseases that can lead to illnesses and worsening of current diseases. Understanding the impact of air quality on our health can help raise awareness about the importance of clean air and encourage others to improve and protect air quality. 

Dr. Andrew Krieger, an Emergency Department director at Coastal Carolina Hospital, shared his knowledge of air quality and its effects on the human body as well as tips to help prevent air quality-related illnesses.  

Dr. Andrew Krieger Headshot
Dr. Andrew Krieger received his medical degree from Indiana University. He did his residency at The Ohio State  University and started practicing community and emergency medicine in 2016. He is an Emergency Department director at Coastal Carolina Hospital. ©Coastal Carolina Hospital

“Nine out of 10 people worldwide are considered to be breathing polluted air.”

Quality control

Air quality is measured through an air-quality index (AQI) and is measured on a scale ranging from zero to 500. An AQI value 50 or below is considered good air quality. When the air quality is good, it means the air is clear and contains small amounts of solid particles and chemical pollutants, and humans are less likely to be affected by air pollutants. 

Nine out of 10 people worldwide are considered to be breathing polluted air. Air pollution can be linked directly to approximately 12 in every 100 deaths. Behind hypertension, air pollution is considered the number two risk factor affecting overall disease burden and premature disability. 

When it comes to making sure you are breathing in good-quality air, Dr. Krieger suggests exercising outside between 3 and 5 p.m. when the pollutant levels are the lowest. Try to avoid running on busy roads and near factories. Place a HEPA filter in your house. These filters will reduce the amount of particulate matter such as pet dander, pollen mold and some bacteria and airborne illnesses. It’s important to note that these filters will not kill bacteria and airborne diseases, they just remove them from the air.

Close up of a Fluffy Cat Sitting Next to Air Purifier

Revenge of the pollen

Down South everyone’s favorite season must be pollen, right? Well maybe not, but it is one of the longest seasons in the South starting from February through November. Pollen is measured differently from air quality. A silicon rod is used to collect pollen particles that cling to the rod. A pollen count is done by counting each number of pollen particles. A low pollen count is less than 50 and a high pollen count is above 100. 

For most people breathing in pollen can cause sneezing, congestion, a runny nose or red, watery, itchy eyes. For those with asthma, pollen exposure can trigger an asthma attack. 

When trying to reduce pollen levels, Dr. Krieger recommends avoiding outdoor activities during peak times, keeping windows closed during peak times and using antihistamines, decongestants and nasal steroids. Speaking with an allergist can be beneficial if you are prone to seasonal allergies. 

Pollen grains. 3D rendering

Going viral

Upper respiratory illnesses are common and affect average adults once or twice yearly. Common sources of respiratory infections include influenza, rhinoviruses, Covid and other viral illnesses. These viruses are mainly spread through cough and direct contact.

Starting with coughing, coughs can travel at speeds up to 100 mph. Large droplets within a cough can travel up to six feet and have as many as 3,000 droplets. The transmission of these droplets is what gets people sick. 

Dr. Krieger’s tips to prevent infection include staying at home when you’re sick, coughing into your elbow, getting vaccines and his number one tip, washing your hands.

“Specifically relating to upper respiratory infections, washing your hands after touching a public surface can reduce the chances of getting a respiratory infection by 20 percent,” Dr. Krieger said.

Mother taking care of sick child with cold flu blowing nose with tissue.

Fast facts

  • Three to eleven percent of the population will get the flu every year. 
  • The flu and other viral infections can lead to a natural immune response and inflammation, which increases the possibility of heart attack and stroke.
  • In a 2022 study published in Nature, the inflammatory effects of a Covid infection were associated with a 52 percent increase in the risk of stroke, 63 percent increase in heart attack and 72 percent increase in heart failure over the following
    1-12 months.
  • Several studies have shown influenza and Covid vaccination is associated with a reduced risk for both heart attack and stroke.
  • Air pollution significantly impacts stroke, cancer and heart disease.

“Washing your hands after touching a public surface can reduce the chances of getting a respiratory infection by 20 percent.”

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