Overall, smog is harmful to both the respiratory (lungs) and cardiovascular (heart) systems. It aggravates heart problems, bronchitis, asthma, and other lung problems. Smog reduces lung function even in healthy people. Even at low levels, ground level ozone and fine particulate matter are harmful. There are no "safe" levels of smog.
Ground-level ozone irritates the eyes, nose, and throat. When it is inhaled, it can dry out and inflame the protective membranes of the nose and throat. This can make it more difficult for the body to fight against an infection. Inflamed breathing passages can also decrease the lung's working capacity. Symptoms can include:
- shortness of breath
- pain when breathing
When the amount of ground-level ozone increases, so do the number of emergency room visits and hospital admissions. It can even cause premature death.
The smaller the particle, the deeper it can be inhaled, which makes fine airborne particles dangerous. Larger particles usually settle in the mouth and nose, while fine particles can get stuck in the lungs. Once in the lungs, the particles can decrease the lungs' working capacity and aggravate respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. When there is more particulate matter in the air, death rates are higher.
When people inhale ozone and particulates from the air, their arteries tighten, which reduces the blood flow (and oxygen supply) to the heart.
Who is most at risk?
Although smog affects each and every one of us, it is especially harmful to:
- children: Children's lungs are still developing. Children have smaller airways and breathe more rapidly than adults. They also tend to spend more time outdoors in the summer. All these factors increase their risk of inhaling more polluted air.
- people with existing lung conditions, such as asthma sufferers: People with asthma already have poor lung function to begin with. Ground-level ozone and particulates can cause additional inflammation in the lungs that can aggravate symptoms or trigger an asthma attack. People with respiratory illnesses such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema) or lung cancer are also sensitive to smog and air pollution.
- people with existing heart conditions: Smog is particularly dangerous for people who suffer from heart disease, congestive heart failure, heart rhythm problems, or hardened arteries. People with diabetes are also more sensitive because they are more likely to have heart disease.
- seniors: Seniors are at higher risk not only because of their age and their generally weaker heart, lungs, and immune system, but also because seniors are more likely to have a pre-existing health condition. Smog is particularly dangerous for seniors who suffer from cardiovascular disease and lung problems such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Seniors who smoke or are especially active outdoors need to be especially cautious.
- people who work or exercise outdoors: While exercising, you breathe harder and mostly through the mouth, so the air doesn't get the filtering provided by the nose, which means more polluted air gets through. You might feel you are doing your body good by jogging down a congested urban street, but you are actually putting your lungs at a greater risk.
Other people who need to be careful on smoggy days include people with allergies, pregnant women, and smokers.
Warning signs that smog may be causing you harm:
- breathing difficulties (especially during exercising), including shortness of breath
- increased mucus production in the nose and throat
- chest tightness
- cough or throat irritation
- eye irritation
- feeling unusually tired
- low energy
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