What is Asthma and How Does Air Pollution Make it Worse?

Millions of people worldwide suffer from asthma. While triggers can be anything from sports to allergens, how does air pollution make symptoms worse?

Asthma is a respiratory condition that millions of Americans suffer from. It is a chronic lung condition that inflames and narrows airways, making it difficult to breathe as air cannot enter or leave the bronchial tubes leading to your lungs. Many things can trigger an asthma attack from allergens, strenuous physical activity, and cigarette smoke, but one thing that makes symptoms particularly difficult to deal with is air pollution.

What is Asthma?

People with asthma come from all demographics and ages and cope with the condition differently. Some cases are severe and happen often, while some symptoms only occur when strenuous physical activity is involved. According to the CDC, 1 in 13 people have asthma and is one of the leading causes in adults missing work and children missing school.

Asthma is the number one chronic disease in children, often beginning early on in childhood before the age of 5. It’s important to recognize if your child has asthmatic tendencies. See a doctor, allergist or asthma specialist as soon as you think your child might have asthma, especially if it’s severe so they can get the proper treatment.

Types of Asthma

There are two primary types of asthma that people can be diagnosed with: allergic and nonallergic. When you have chronic allergic asthma, you are triggered by exposure to allergens like pollen. Nonallergic asthma happens due to a variety of triggers including stress, exercise, illness, weather or air quality.

People who only experience asthmatic tendencies (coughing, trouble breathing, wheezing, etc.) while at work have occupational asthma. According to The Occupational Safety and Health Administration,

“An estimated 11 million workers in a wide range of industries and occupations in the United States are exposed to at least one of the more than 250 substances known or believed to cause or exacerbate occupational asthma. Triggers may include chemicals used in manufacturing; paints; cleaning products; dusts from wood, grain and flour; latex gloves; certain molds; animals; and insects.”

Understanding what type of asthma you have will help you better find triggers and preventative practices.


Common symptoms are shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and whistling in your chest when you breathe and chest tightness. As mentioned above, triggers and severity of symptoms vary upon the person. Some may only experience shortness of breath and coughing when partaking in strenuous physical activity. Others experience an extreme amount of stress due to the everyday interruption their asthma brings to normal daily activities.

Asthma can become serious if left untreated. It can also complicate other medical conditions like the flu, pregnancy, osteoporosis and the chickenpox. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America has shared the following data on asthma and it’s consequences:

  • Asthma causes nearly 2 million emergency room visits a year
  • Each day, ten Americans die from asthma. Many of these deaths can be avoided with proper care and preventative measures
  • The annual cost of asthma is about $56 billion
  • For adults, asthma is one of the leading causes for missing work, about 14 million workdays a year
  • For children, asthma is one of the top causes for missing school, about 13.8 million school days a year

Asthma and Air Pollution

Air pollution makes breathing difficult for a healthy individual, but it can make conditions particularly difficult for those already suffering from asthma.

Research has shown that sensitive groups with asthma were 40 percent more likely to have an asthma attack and require a trip to the hospital on days with high air pollution levels. People in urban areas where air pollution is more likely to be present should be extra cautious when spending time outdoors.

Ozone, a gas found in our atmosphere, that when mixed with chemicals from chemical plants, factories, and motor vehicles creates smog, is particularly irritating to the lungs and airways. Asthma risk increases as ozone levels rise, hospitalization data has shown in the recent past:

“The risk of asthma rises as the concentration of ozone in the air rises, according to hospitalization data on more than a million children between 1995 and 2000. With each increase of ozone by one part per billion (a measure of its concentration in the air), the risk of asthma hospitalization went up 22 percent.”

If you live in an area where ozone levels tend to be high, make sure you are diligent about checking local air quality reports. Adjust your daily routines to exercise indoors and stay away from high traffic areas. Stay on top of your symptoms and triggers by downloading an app that can give you real-time air quality forecasts, prescription refill reminders and even help locate specialists.

Airborne particles found in haze, smoke, and dust which are small enough to infiltrate the bodies’ natural barrier system (skin, mouth and nose) are serious concerns for people with asthma as this increased irritation to the lungs and airways amplifies breathing difficulties. Air pollution causes lung failure and induces flare-ups causing upper respiratory infections and worsening symptoms.

Be Air Aware

As we’re celebrating Air Quality Awareness Week, it’s important to practice the campaign’s main takeaway of being “air aware” each and every day. When you have asthma, it is crucial to pay special attention to air quality.

Stay informed with asthma, allergy and air quality organizations that make it their mission to provide up-to-date information and resources to sensitive groups. Be sure to visit an asthma specialist and seek the necessary treatment options available to help make coping with asthma on a daily basis more bearable.

Do you deal with asthma? Do you know notice symptoms worsening around air pollution?