Air Pollution Triggers Respiratory Emergencies in All Age Groups

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Older adults aren’t the only ones who need to worry about their lungs on smoggy days. Poor air quality can lead to emergency respiratory treatment among people of all ages, especially those with asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), pneumonia, and acute respiratory infections, according to a 2019 study in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

Investigators from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) collected data on nearly 40 million emergency department visits for respiratory complaints from 2000 to 2014 in 869 U.S. counties. They compiled data about levels of ozone (the main ingredient in smog) and fine particulate matter (found in car exhaust and factory smoke) in each community during the week prior to every emergency department visit.

High levels of ozone were linked to increased emergency department visits for people of all ages with asthma, COPD, pneumonia, and acute respiratory infections. The strongest association was seen in adults under the age of 65. The same was true for increased fine particulate matter levels and emergency department visits for children and adults under 65 with asthma, acute respiratory infections, and pneumonia. A separate 2019 study from the United Kingdom found that air pollution was associated with a decrease in lung function and an increase in COPD prevalence.

Bottom line: People of all ages with respiratory conditions should take precautions on smoggy days (like exercising indoors, keeping windows closed, and using an air filter) to protect their lungs.