Ask Mr. Pedometer and Friends…

Original Publish Date:  July 5, 2017

Q:    Mr. Pedometer, many of us have had unusual respiratory issues this season, perhaps made worse by the explosion of plant life following a rainy winter.  Do you have any advice to keep us breathing easier?

A:  Summertime is no fun if you are not getting enough oxygen.  We have heard reports that local hospitals’ emergency wards have been crowded with people suffering from allergy/asthma/bronchitis/pneumonia challenges.  A recent edition of Spry Living, the magazine insert of our local newspaper, offered tips on keeping lungs healthy, including the following:

  • “When your respiratory system is doing what it’s supposed to do, you barely give it a second thought. With each of the more than 20,000 breaths, you take a day, life-sustaining oxygen enters your nose and travels to your lungs. They, in turn, transfer oxygen into your bloodstream, which ferries it to all your body’s cells. During this process, your blood picks up carbon dioxide and carries it back to your lungs where it’s expelled when you exhale.
  • “Your respiratory system performs this intricate, well-choreographed dance over and over again, without skipping a beat. Until stuff that’s in the air, from cigarette smoke to pollutants, throw a wrench in the system.
  • “’Our lungs interact with the environment,” says Dr. Lisa A. Maier, chief of the division of environmental and occupational health sciences at National Jewish Health, in Denver, Colo. “We literally breathe in everything that’s around us.”
  • “And respiratory problems are the price many of us pay. For example, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are major public health burdens in America, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An estimated 23 million Americans have asthma, and COPD is the third leading cause of death in the nation. Lung cancer is the top cancer killer in the U.S., taking an estimated 160, 340 lives in 2012, reports the American Lung Association (ALA).
  • “Problems don’t happen overnight. The first sign that something’s amiss with our respiratory system may be a chronic cough, shortness of breath, excess mucus, wheezing, chronic chest pain or even coughing up blood, according to the ALA. ‘Over a lifetime, cumulative risks can result in more significant respiratory disease,’ says Maier.
  • “The key to lung health is protecting your lungs from the things most likely to harm them in the first place, says Maier. “Once damage has been done, we try to keep that from worsening or progressing.”

Here’s a look at some of the biggest threats to your lung health and how you can avoid or minimize them.

SMOKING – No surprise here: Lighting up is just about the worst thing you can do to your lungs and your body.          Diseases caused by smoking kill more than 393,000 Americans annually, according to the ALA.

SECONDHAND SMOKE –  Inhaling somebody else’s cigarette smoke is just as bad for your respiratory system as smoking.  Protect yourself: Steer clear of places where smokers congregate. And don’t let people smoke around you.

ALLERGENS IN THE HOME –  Think animal dander, dust mites, and mold, to name a few. “These can be a risk for respiratory problems,” says Maier. In people with a genetic susceptibility, continuous exposure to allergens can cause allergic sensitization or an allergic response. Protect yourself: Some techniques to try: Be scrupulous about getting rid of dust. And if you can’t bear the thought of putting your pet up for adoption, keep it off beds, furniture, and carpets, and brush it regularly to reduce shedding and dander. Control dust, dander, and fur by using a HEPA vacuum cleaner, which traps tiny airborne particles as you clean. Clean up water damage before mold gains a foothold.

WORKPLACE ALLERGENS –  People who work in settings where they are routinely exposed to allergens are also at risk for allergic sensitization. “We worry about workplaces because that is usually where exposure is highest,” says Maier.

Respiratory culprits include glues (acrylates), two-part paints and two-part foams (isocyanates) and high levels of dust and other irritants, which can increase the risk of asthma COPD and lung damage.  Protect yourself: The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers information on workplace hazards and can help employers and employees assess them and recommend strategies for reducing them and preventing work-related illness. (Visit The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health)

OUTDOOR ALLERGENS –  Pollen, the fine powder that lets plants reproduce, is the big one. Pollen from ragweed, grass,  and trees can make susceptible people miserable.  

Protect yourself: Pollen season varies depending on where you live. (Check pollen.com to pinpoint yours.) When pollen is in the air, the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences recommends staying indoors between 5 a.m. and 10 a.m. when levels are highest.  Keep windows closed to reduce exposure. Regularly wash clothes to remove pollen. And don’t dry clothes outdoors as pollen can settle on them.

OUTDOOR AIR QUALITY –  A recent ALA report stated that more than 131.8 million Americans, or 42 percent of us, live in counties with unhealthy levels of ozone or particle pollution. Ozone is the byproduct of gases emitted from tailpipes,  smokestacks and other sources. Add sunlight to the mix, and presto, you end up with smog. Teeny solid and liquid particle pollutants hang out in the smoke that comes from coal-fired power plants or motor vehicles. When they merge, they create haze. Inhaling these pollutants can cause wheezing, coughing, asthma and even heart attacks and premature death, according to the ALA.

Protect yourself: Listen to local reports and don’t exercise outside when pollution levels are high, advises the ALA.  Don’t work out near high-traffic areas either.

INFECTIONS – Children and even adults who repeatedly develop bacterial and viral respiratory infections, such as influenza and pneumonia, are at increased risk for asthma, says Maier. “Infections can also aggravate underlying lung disease,” worsening symptoms.

Protect yourself: Get an annual flu vaccine to lower your risk for influenza. Also, all adults 65 and older should receive the pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine (PPSV23) to protect them against pneumonia.

We hope these suggestions will help you keep breathing easier, throughout summertime and beyond!