Summer months can be tough on people with asthma, which affects more than 20 million Americans. Poor air quality caused by a combination of ground-level ozone and air pollution can worsen asthma symptoms, triggering wheezing, coughing, trouble breathing, and even leading to hospitalization in serious cases. Newspapers, websites, and TV news broadcasts often warn of so-called "ozone-advisory," "ozone-alert," or "ozone-action" days, when sensitive groups—those with asthma and other respiratory conditions—should stay indoors because potentially dangerous smog conditions are likely.
Ozone is the primary ingredient in urban smog, generated when sunlight hits pollutants spewed by cars, chemical plants, industrial boilers, refineries, and other sources. It occurs naturally in the Earth's upper atmosphere, but when it's released at ground level, it becomes a harmful outdoor pollutant. Because sunlight abounds during summer months, summer is often a highly irritating time for the lungs of asthmatics, says LeRoy Graham, a pediatric pulmonologist based in Atlanta, Ga.
On ozone-alert days, asthmatics tend to experience more lung inflammation. When this happens, "they're more likely to have to seek unscheduled care," Graham says. Because of this, asthmatics should have a plan to lessen the chances of an attack on poor air-quality days, and know what to do if an attack occurs. Here are 4 ways to keep asthma symptoms at bay this summer:
Try to stay indoors on ozone-alert days. If you must venture out, limit your time outdoors. Restrict strenuous outdoor activities to early morning or evening, experts advise, when air quality is better. Keep windows closed at home and in the car to avoid exposure to smog. Plan activities over the next few days by checking air quality forecasts from AIRNow, a website developed by various federal, state, and local agencies to monitor air quality across the country. That way, "you're not stuck going to grocery store on the worst [air quality] day of the week," says Martha White, a fellow with the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.
Keep medications on hand. It's especially important to take preventive asthma medications, such as Advair or Flovent, as prescribed, and to keep your rescue inhaler nearby in case of an asthma attack. "Everyone with asthma should have a rescue inhaler," Graham says, even if your asthma is generally well controlled. Remember to check the expiration date on your inhaler to ensure it's still effective. Ask your doctor for a new prescription, if needed.
Talk to your doctor if you find yourself using your rescue inhaler more than twice a week. It may indicate that you need a preventive medication, or if you're already taking one that your dosage may need to be changed, Graham says. A doctor's visit is also a good opportunity to discuss your asthma-action plan—which spells out how to handle worsening asthma symptoms, says Norman Edelman, chief medical officer of the American Lung Association.
Stay hydrated and breathe properly. "If you get dehydrated, then anything else that is wrong with the air is going to make the lungs feel worse," White says. "The lungs like the right temperature and the right amount of hydration." Try to breathe through your nose, not through your mouth, she advises. The nose's job is to filter the air and bring it to the right temperature and appropriate level of humidity. If you breathe through your mouth, you bypass this filtration system, White says.
Consider using an allergy face mask when doing outdoor chores. If you have allergies and need to cut the grass, for example, wearing a mask limits your exposure to allergens. "Don't add your allergy exposure to the bad air quality," since allergy exposure can also cause asthma symptoms, White says.