Don't Take a Deep Breath

The summer season: a time to be outdoors enjoying the blue skies, sunshine, and fresh air. As the warm air arrives and the rain disappears, most of us increase our outdoor activity. However, the combination of warm temperatures, low humidity, and lack of rain also leads to an elevated risk of wildfires and decreased air quality. What does this mean, and what do we need to do?

Outdoor air is contaminated with a host of pollutants from combustion (vehicular, industrial, stationary and natural sources), evaporation, and spraying, along with particulates that are picked up and carried by the winds. The EPA chose the six most common and most damaging pollutants: particle pollution (often referred to as particulate matter), ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide, sulfur oxides, nitrogen oxides, and lead. Of the six pollutants, particle pollution and ground-level ozone are the most widespread health threats.

Outdoor smoke contains particulate matter (PM), which is a combination of liquid droplets (aerosols), solid particles (dust, soot, dirt), and gases, including carbon monoxide. PM is differentiated according to particle size with “coarse” particles that are less than 10 micrometers but larger than 2.5 micrometers having the designation of PM10. PM10 are often encountered near dusty roadways and industry. Fine particles are those that are between 2.5 and 0.1 micrometers in diameter and are designated as PM2.5. Ultrafine particles, also called nano-particles, are less than 0.1 micrometers in size and are more soluble than their larger counterparts. These are referred to as ultrafine particles (UFP) or PM0.1. Health risk increases as particle size decreases. Although any PM less than 10 micrometers is readily absorbed in the lungs and then distributed throughout the body, the biggest health threat from smoke is associated with fine particles. Studies show that levels of particles in the air that we previously thought were safe can cause illness.

Air quality is often divided into categories to show when air quality is good, moderate, unhealthy, or hazardous. These categories provide guidelines regarding outdoor activity and recommendations for people based on age as well as health status. For example, when the air quality is in the “Moderate” range, individuals with health conditions should limit any time outdoors and avoid strenuous activities as their symptoms may begin to worsen. It is important to learn the air quality numbers and colors and know when to limit your time outdoors.

Exposure to wildfire smoke can cause a number of symptoms including watery or burning eyes, sore throat, sinus irritation, coughing, wheezing, headaches, irregular heartbeat, and shortness of breath. Most healthy adults and children will recover quickly from smoke exposure and will not suffer long-term consequences. However, high levels of wildfire smoke is a concern for people with heart disease (e.g, stroke survivors, congestive heart failure) and lung disease (e.g., asthma, COPD, respiratory infections) as exposure may worsen symptoms or trigger life-threatening health effects.

At times when the air quality does decrease, there are several things you can do to plan ahead and reduce your risk. First, reducing outdoor physical activity is effective to lower the dose of inhaled air pollutants. Second, get and use a HEPA filter for your home air conditioning or air purifier, and turn the AC to recirculate in your home and car. Third, stay inside with the doors and windows closed to reduce exposure. Fourth, consider purchasing a respirator mask especially if you will be outdoors for longer periods of time. It is important to get one with a proper rating. Respirators rated as N95 are usually sufficient and are usually the best option for most as the higher numbers can make it more difficult to breathe. And finally, don’t forget about your pets.

In Ayurveda, uncongested breathing is important to ensure proper flow of prana, the vital life force, throughout the head and body. Cleaning out the nasal passages and sinuses with a saline nasal spray or Neti pot helps moisturize the nose while also cleaning out any dust, dirt, and pollen. This can be followed by applying nasal oil or ghee to help lubricate the nasal passages, soothe and cleanse the tissues, and clean out excess mucus from the sinuses.

Ayurvedic medicine offers a number of herbs with respiratory and immune benefits. Emblica officinalis, also known as Indian gooseberry or amla fruit, is a natural source of bioflavonoids and is revered for its antioxidant and immune-supportive properties. Adhatoda vasica (vasaka) offers respiratory health support, and Ocimum sanctum (holy basil) has immune-supportive properties, encourages heart health, and provides healthy lung response. Curcumin may play a protective role in healthy respiratory function by modulating pro-inflammatory chemicals (cytokines) and reducing oxidative stress.[1] Glycyrrhiza glabra (licorice) has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory and anti-allergic agent to support healthy bronchial function, and Piper longum has traditionally been used to promote a healthy respiratory tract. The leaves of Tylophora asthmatica have been used extensively in Ayurvedic medicine for respiratory conditions, and its use has been documented in scientific literature. In a double-blind clinical study of 135 patients with respiratory symptoms, those given 200 mg of tylophora leaves twice daily for 6 days demonstrated improvements in symptoms and respiratory function during the treatment and for up to 2 weeks after treatment.[2]

Summertime is a great time to play outside, but if it looks smoky, staying inside may be the best and healthiest place to play.

[1] Venkatesan N, Punithavathi D, Babu M. Protection from acute and chronic lung diseases by curcumin. Adv Exp Med Biol. 2007;595:379-405. PubMed PMID: 17569221.

[2] Gupta, S., George, P., Gupta, V., et al. (1979). Tylophora indica in bronchial asthma – adouble-blind study. Indian Journal of Medical Research, 69, 981-989

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