Chronic illness

Four ways to care for your lungs

Since October is Healthy Lung Month, let’s take a look at a few ways you can better care for your lungs. After all, chronic lower respiratory disease is the third-leading cause of death for U.S. adults, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Some common known causes of lung damage in the U.S. include smoking, indoor and outdoor air pollution, radon poisoning and viruses or infections caused by germs. Of course, certain diseases and even medications such as chemotherapy also cause lung damage. And many causes of lung damage are still unknown.

But here are a few strategies for avoiding some of the preventable lung damage you can encounter through daily living.

Aerosol spray can. Photo by PiccoloNamek, CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Be careful with household chemicals.

Some of the products we use around our homes can cause lung irritation—especially when used incorrectly. Be sure to read any warnings and follow the directions on the labels of cleaning products, beauty products and paints or other chemicals used for home upkeep.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends safer products with its Safer Choice label and online searchable listing found here. You’ll also find a list of safer ingredients, educational videos and more information on chemical use in the home. You can learn more about one of the worst offenders, volatile organic compounds (VOCs) here.

Another strategy is to make your own cleansers with fewer, safer ingredients such as vinegar, borax, baking soda, sodium, lemon, etc. The San Francisco Gate offers home guides to get you started, including one for household cleaning that focuses on safer cleaning techniques.

Air pollution care for your lungs

Monitor air pollution.

Outdoor

Unfortunately, you can’t do much to control the air quality in your town or city. But you can monitor it and try to avoid certain levels that pose the most risk.

Many weather forecasting websites include air quality information. And you can find regional information from AirNow.gov. Learn what levels impact your lungs and do what you can to adjust your schedule when the quality is too poor to be outside.

Indoor

We spend most of our time indoors in the U.S. Unfortunately the air quality is often worse inside than out. Mold, dust, pet hair and chemicals (see above) can build up in the air and get into your lungs. Here are some ideas for preventing problems and monitoring your air quality.

  • Open your windows whenever the air outside is safe. This will help shake up any stagnant air.
  • Avoid doing anything indoors that can release toxins (painting, using nail polish or hair spray, burning wood, etc.) whenever possible.
  • Use and regularly change air filters on your air conditioner.
  • Use a HEPA-filter in your vacuum.
  • Run the fan in the bathroom whenever the hot water is on to prevent mold.
  • Run the fan above the stove when you cook—maybe even when the dishwasher is running.
  • Consider purchasing an air purifier or quality monitor.
  • Avoid airborne bacteria by washing your hands and keeping sinks and doorknobs clean.

Two common indoor silent and invisible pollutants are radon and carbon monoxide. Breathing too much of these gases is poisonous and can cause lung damage. Installing detectors can prevent poisoning from both.

MedlinePlus also offers an extensive guide to resources on indoor air pollution.

Air quality index

The EPA uses an air quality index (AQI) that can help you track and understand how local air quality might impact health. The number correlates with levels of health concern:

AQI values Levels of health concern
When the AQI is in this range: … air quality conditions are:
0-50 Good
51-100 Moderate
101-150 Unhealthy for sensitive groups
151-200 Unhealthy
201-300 Very unhealthy
301-500 Hazardous

Find more extensive information for reading, understanding and reducing exposure to poor air quality here, via the EPA.

Learn how weather impacts you.

Allergies: If you have allergies, watch the pollen count, available on any weather source as well as many apps.

Humidity: When the air is too dry, your lungs work harder. Dry air is also a characteristic of higher altitude, where the air contains less oxygen. On the other hand, when it’s too humid, your lung function can also suffer, primarily because it holds in allergens and pollutants, according to the American Lung Association. (Learn more about humidity and lungs here.)

Disasters: Recent natural disasters have also brought to light specific lung risks associated with extreme weather.

The biggest danger with floods often comes in the cleanup. Take careful precaution when cleaning up after a flood because ventilation is often limited, spaces are damp, bacteria-laden and ripe for mold growth and moving things around often unearths particles that fly into the air. Follow the American Lung Association’s tips on flood cleanup.

Both wildfires and house fires pose a significant risk to your lungs. Even if you don’t see or feel a fire, the smoke can hurt you because of high levels of carbon monoxide (see above). You should monitor air quality during nearby wildfire events.

Check out the American Lung Association’s other advice for weather emergencies here.

cigarettes

Consider your lifestyle.

Despite all these potential risks your lungs face each day, know that most people can undo, counteract or slow some lung damage by living a healthy lifestyle.

The first key to a healthy lung lifestyle is not smoking. Asking others not to smoke in your house or car is also important. Avoid crowds or public spaces where people smoke.

Exercise makes lungs healthier. Making your lungs work a little harder than usual helps them grow stronger. (If you have compromised lungs, exercise may not be for you. Check with your physician. See also: Exercising with PAH.) Breathing exercises can also help.

Taking control over the things you can do to care for your lungs is likely to benefit your whole body.

And just for fun, here’s a short quiz to test your knowledge on air quality.

Find more on fitness and chronic illness in our summer Community.

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