Allercy and Asthma Health
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The Official Publication of AAN - MA

Summer Break: Asthma Away from Home

By Thomas J. Kallstrom, RRT, FAARC

Summer break will soon be upon us. As many families hit the road or perhaps decide to have a “staycation,” it might be a good idea to take a closer look at uncontrollable factors that could cause an unplanned asthma or allergy episode. After all, you don’t want to encounter something that will reroute your family from your vacation destination to the emergency department.

There are four potential triggers that could aggravate the airways of people with asthma and allergies—high levels of ozone, molds, air pollution, and pollen.

Air quality data just a click away

A good way to keep track of air quality is to use the U.A. government website, AirNow, which provides access to daily national air quality data and focuses on the five major air pollutants that are regulated by the Clean Air Act: ground-level ozone, particle pollution, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide.

More than 300 U.S. cities are plugged into this website, so just plug in your zip code. An analysis of today’s pollution levels and a forecast for tomorrow are immediately posted. Whether you plan to travel or just spend time in your own backyard, this website will provide you with what you need to know before you go outside.

For a closer look at air pollution, the AirNow site features the Air Quality Index,  or AQI, as well. The AQI reports the quality of air as it relates to air pollution on a daily basis. It rates air quality on a scale of 0 to 500, with the higher number being the highest level of air pollution. It is color coded and easy to read. By looking at this on a daily basis, you can determine the risks of venturing outdoors:

  • Essentially, any air quality day that is less than 50 is considered good and no limitation of outdoor time is necessary.
  • If rated 50–100, unusually sensitive people should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
  • A rating of 100–150 is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, especially those with asthma and other lung diseases. Thus, prolonged outdoor exercise for these people should be limited.
  • An AQI of 150–200 means everyone should limit prolonged outdoor exertion.
  • When the number hits 200–300, people with asthma or lung disease should avoid all outdoor exertion and everyone else should limit outdoor exertion.
  • A number between 300 and 500 is indicative of a hazardous condition, and any person with or without lung impairment could be exposed to emergency conditions.

Summer presents extra challenges

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the best time to engage in vigorous exercise outdoors during the summer is in the early morning hours, and away from busy streets or industrial areas. When the ozone levels are elevated, a less vigorous workout may be in order, which could include bicycle riding, jogging, hiking, baseball, or gardening. Administering a pre-exertion bronchodilator before exercise may be a good idea as well. More intense exercise like basketball, tennis, or vigorous running may need to be avoided when ozone is elevated.

When faced with conditions like high levels of grass and tree pollens, increased mold counts (which are especially predominant on humid days or after a rainfall), and extreme heat and humidity, many people with allergies and asthma would do best to stay indoors with the air conditioning running.

Certainly the summertime is a season when we all look forward to being in the great outdoors. Being well informed about quality air and what to avoid will help you enjoy your summer.

Tom Kallstrom is chief operating officer of the American Association for Respiratory Care (AARC) and a member of the National Asthma Education and Prevention Program Coordinating Committee.

A version of this article will be published in the June 2010 issue of AARC Times, a publication of the AARC.
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