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August 15, 2016

Breathing Easy In the Heat

by Amanda MacMillan

On a hot and humid day, you don’t need a healthy living blog to tell you that it’s not very comfortable to sweat and swelter, or that it might even be dangerous if the temperature rises too high. But heat isn’t the only thing to watch for on a day like today.

“In general, the hotter it is and the more humid it is, the worse the air quality will be,” says Effie Singas, MD, pulmonary critical care specialist and associate professor of medicine at Hofstra Northwell School of Medicine at Hofstra University. Long summer days mean more ultraviolet radiation, which reacts with ozone (a chemical in the air) to form lung-irritating smog, she says. High humidity and less wind also allow pollution to accumulate and stagnate.

Fortunately, air quality is heavily regulated in the United States, says Singas, and in most parts of the country, it rarely gets bad enough for healthy people to be worried. But for young children, older adults, people who are active outdoors, and anyone with a heart or lung condition (like asthma or COPD, for example), pollution and ozone levels on hot summer days may be enough to cause health concerns. So how do you stay safe and breathe easy when the heat is on?

The first step is to check your local AQI, or air-quality index, which tells you how clean (or dirty) the air is in your area, and whether ozone and pollution levels are risky for you. You can check your AQI at airnow.gov, or sign up to get an email alert when it gets bad enough to pose problems. “You don’t have to be obsessed with AQI, but it’s good to be aware,” says Singas. “Sometimes they’ll even mention it on the radio in the morning, along with the weather, if it’s a poor air-quality day.” If the AQI is heading towards “unhealthy,” here’s what to do:

Change up your workout schedule. “Simply put, you probably shouldn’t run along the service road next to the Long Island Expressway during rush hour on a really hot day,” says Singas. “That’s when pollution is going to be at its highest, and even healthy people could have airway irritation or difficulty breathing.” (When you run you take in air at a faster rate, so your lungs are exposed to more pollution than when you’re just walking.) Work out in the early morning or late evening when temperatures are lower -- preferably away from heavy traffic.

Or get your exercise indoors. “I tell my elderly patients in the summer, especially those with chronic lung disease, that they shouldn’t limit their walking,” says Singas. “But instead of walking outdoors, they could go to a mall and walk indoors in the air conditioning.”

Keep windows up and air on recirculate. You can protect yourself from pollution while you’re in the car, too, by keeping your windows up on busy highways -- especially if you’re crawling along in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Hit the “recirculate” button on your air conditioning controls to stop your car from sucking in lots of dirty air from outside.

Watch for warning signs. If you experience coughing, chest pain or tightness, wheezing or unusual fatigue while spending time outdoors, ratchet your activity level down. Then talk to your doctor about what happened; you may have a condition that can be treated with medication or lifestyle changes.