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What is Air Pollution?

Air pollution is caused by gases, dust particles, fumes, smoke and odors. Pollution can injure the lungs, cause diseases to develop and make symptoms of allergies, asthma, COPD and other diseases worse.


Finding Air Quality Reports

Many cities across the country offer daily ozone and air quality forecasts to help you know when the air quality is low, using the Air Quality Index ratings below. Watch local news, the state department of health website or visit AirNow for real-time ozone conditions.

In Colorado, visit the Colorado Department of Public Health & Environment for up-to-date information on Air Quality Advisories.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency


What Are Common Air Pollutants and How Do they Affect Health?

Common air pollutants include:

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) comes from vehicles.
  • Ground-level Ozone (O3) is formed by a chemical reaction of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and nitrogen oxides in the presence of sunlight.
  • Lead (Pb) pollution comes from metal refineries, combustion of leaded gasoline, waste incinerators and battery manufacturing.
  • Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) enters the atmosphere from wood burning, electric utilities, industrial boilers and vehicles.
  • Particulate Matter (PM) is formed through chemical reactions, fuel combustion, industrial processes, farming and unpaved roads or road construction.
  • Sulfur Dioxide (SO2) comes from fuel combustion, electric utilities, industrial processes and volcano eruptions.

Once inside the lungs, air pollutants can narrow airways, decrease air flow, and can cause airway inflammation, chest tightness, chest pain, heart palpitations, shortness of breath and fatigue.

Inflammation caused by air pollution can move outside of the lungs, and air pollution is also associated with an increased risk of stroke and heart attack.


Symptoms to Watch

Pollution can aggravate symptoms for those who have respiratory conditions, including asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When pollution levels are bad, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Difficulty breathing normally
  • Cough with or without mucus
  • Chest discomfort, tightness, pain
  • Throat irritation
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual fatigue


How to Protect Your Lungs

It is hard to avoid breathing air pollution because it travels and spreads easily; Use these tips from the respiratory experts at National Jewish Health to protect your lungs, especially if you are elderly or have lung disease:

  • Watch local air quality and smoke advisories.

  • Take medications, including a rescue inhaler, as prescribed. Do not take more medication, or take it more often than prescribed.

  • If you are near fires where smoke or particulates are significant, consider leaving the area until the air is clear again.

  • Stay indoors as much as possible, and close windows if you can.

  • Limit or eliminate outdoor exercise until the air clears.

  • If you require increased medication or are experiencing increased symptoms, call your doctor first.

Lung Line nurses can help with respiratory health questions; call 800.222.5864.


This information was reviewed and approved by Anthony Gerber, MD (June 2022).