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How Air Pollution Affects Your Lungs

Feb 7, 2010

We all have probably experienced some of the ways that air pollution can affect your lungs. From minor irritations such as burning eyes to more unpleasant ones like car exhaust fumes, air pollution is rampant in today's society. The long term outcome from continued exposure to these things can include serious and sometimes even fatal diseases. However, with a little effort it's possible to protect yourself from the effects of air pollution.

Causes

When thinking about air pollution, our thoughts leap immediately to the outdoor pollutants of carbon monoxide from cars as well as CFCs (chlorofluorocarbons - the stuff in that used to be in aerosol sprays). There are also indoor air pollutants from paint fumes and even CFC free aerosol sprays (such as hair spray and air fresheners). Other problems come from mold, pollen and dust, which can be trapped inside by our air conditioning systems.

Effects

People who already have serious diseases such as asthma and diabetes, as well as pregnant women and the elderly, are more susceptible to the dangerous effects of air pollution. However, people with no apparent problems can develop issues if they are exposed to the above causes too long or too often.

Symptoms

Air pollution can affect your lungs by causing coughing, sneezing, watering eyes, shortness of breath and actual asthma attacks (even if you have never had one before). In an asthma attack, your lungs become swollen and your airways shrink, which lessens the amount of oxygen getting to your lungs. Then mucus starts to develop and coats those already shrunken airways. The more you gulp for air, the more junk you breathe in and the more the lungs swell, which can perpetuate a vicious cycle.

Diseases

Prolonged exposure has been proven to lead to a life long battle with lung diseases such as asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Asthma is often dismissed as insignificant  because it can be managed with inhalers and other medications. Most people do not know that, although it's uncommon, people still sometimes die from asthma attacks. Chronic bronchitis causes a continuing cough with mucus. With emphysema, lung tissue is actually killed, which permanently decreases lung function.

Precautions

For outdoor air pollution, the best precaution is to pay attention to the air quality index in your area. This index alerts people based on a scale of their sensitivity to pollutants when it's best for them to avoid prolonged, or on really bad days any, exposure outdoors. Indoor air pollution is harder to avoid. The problem is that cleaning is the best way to get rid of home pollutants like dust, pet dander and mold, but cleaning can provoke symptoms. Minimizing places for allergens to collect is helpful. This means changing your air filters as often as recommended, vacuuming often, and reducing if not eliminating the best friend of indoor air pollution, carpeting.

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