Tips to help stay healthy when the air quality is poor

It’s something we might take for granted — clean air. But when the air quality becomes an issue, it can affect our daily lives. 

Air quality can be affected by a number of things including pollution and smoke from wildfires. When smoke from wildfires infiltrates the air, it can create a mixture of gases and fine particles. These microscopic particles are what can cause health issues.

“When air quality becomes a concern, it can be unsettling,” said Dr. Gary Grosel, chief medical officer at UnitedHealthcare. “Taking steps to limit your exposure while keeping an eye on local air quality reports may help you stay safe.”

Who is at greatest risk for health issues?

Several groups may be more at risk when air quality becomes poor. This includes:

  • People who have lung diseases like COPD or asthma
  • People with heart disease
  • Older adults over 65
  • Young children
  • Pregnant women

How can you help stay safe?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a few steps to help you reduce your risk.

Check for local air quality forecasts and be prepared when the air is unhealthy.

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is divided into six categories to represent different levels of health concerns:

Green: Good (air pollution poses little or no risk)
Yellow: Moderate (air quality is acceptable, small risk for those unusually sensitive)
Orange: Unhealthy for sensitive groups (these groups may experience health effects)
Red: Unhealthy (some members of the general public may experience health effects, sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects)
Purple: Very unhealthy (increased risk of health effects for everyone)
Maroon: Hazardous (health warning of emergency conditions, everyone could be affected)

  • Avoid exercising outdoors when air quality issues arise.
  • Limit the time your child spends playing outside if air quality is unhealthy.
  • Keep indoor air as clean as possible. Keep your windows and doors closed, run an air conditioner but keep the fresh-air intake closed and keep the filter clean
  • Avoid activities that increase indoor pollution like burning candles, fireplaces and gas stoves
  • Don’t allow anyone to smoke inside

What should you do if the air becomes dangerous?

When the air reaches hazardous levels, everyone needs to take steps to help protect themselves. People most at risk should take precautions before air quality reaches “hazardous” levels.

  • Stay indoors in an area with filtered air
  • If you have to be outside for an extended period of time, consider wearing a tight-fitting N95 mask
  • Keep your activity levels low
  • Create a clean room for sleeping, using air filters and air filtration when possible

How can I tell if poor air quality is affecting me?

Even if you are healthy, you may experience symptoms of poor air quality. This can include:

  • Coughing
  • Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath

For those with heart disease or other heart issues, be aware of the symptoms of heart attack and stroke.

Most health symptoms of poor air quality should go away when the conditions improve. If you have concerns about your symptoms, contact your health care provider.

Learn more about wildfires, air pollution and your health.

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