Air Pollution Crisis: How Do I Protect My Child With Asthma?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5.8 million people visit the doctor every year due to asthma. As a parent, it’s heartbreaking to watch your child endure a coughing fit or rush them to the hospital as they struggle for air. When your little one is diagnosed with asthma, it can affect the whole family. But there are lots of little lifestyle changes you can make that can reduce your toddler’s symptoms.
If you’ve scoured the information sheets given to you by doctors and meticulously taken notes as your physician gives you tips on managing childhood asthma, you’re not alone. In your research, you also may have found that asthma is linked to exposure to air pollution, as reported by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Not only can air pollution exacerbate a child’s asthma symptoms or trigger asthma attacks, but it can also cause a child to develop asthma. With today's changing climate, it’s a big issue for many parents.
Here’s everything you need to know about the link between air pollution and asthma in toddlers and what steps you can take to protect your child from air pollution that could worsen their asthma.
How is Asthma Diagnosed, and What are the Symptoms and Triggers?
A child is diagnosed with asthma when their lungs and airways are inflamed easily by allergens, catching a cold, heavy activity, or air pollutants. While these are things present in most people’s daily lives, those with asthma react to these irritants differently. Common symptoms include frequent coughing while asleep, during exercise, or when exposed to cold air, chest tightness, and a wheezing sound when breathing.
Aside from air pollution, common asthma triggers include pollen, mold, pet dander, a cold, weather, and exercise. While you can’t avoid all triggers, every little step makes a big difference, such as frequently cleaning bed linens, replacing filters in air conditioning and central heating units, and using a vacuum with a HEPA filter.
What Exactly is Air Pollution?
The World Health Organization defines air pollution as “contamination of the indoor or outdoor environment by any chemical, physical or biological agent that modifies the natural characteristics of the atmosphere”. This includes man-made sources such as motor vehicles, tobacco smoke, and household combustion devices, as well as naturally occurring sources, including smog, wildfires, and dust particles.
Particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are the two main types of airborne pollutants. Particulate matter is made up of microscopic particles or droplets that are small enough to get inhaled and enter the lungs and bloodstream. VOC emissions are carbon-based gasses that irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, and can lead to difficulty breathing.
The American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology (AAAAI) data show the main pollutants are particulate matter or tiny droplets less than or equal to 2.5 µm in diameter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide.
How Does Air Pollution Affect Toddlers with Asthma?
WHO data show that 99% of people in the world breathe air that contains high air pollution levels exceeding WHO guideline limits. However, toddlers are more susceptible to high concentrations of polluted air than adults for many reasons, including their still-developing lungs and the amount of air they breathe in relation to their low body weight. They also tend to spend more time outdoors than adults.
Air pollutants can trick a toddler’s immune system into setting up an inflammatory response. In pediatric asthma, when young children already become inflamed more easily than others, this inflammatory response can be especially dangerous.
According to the AAAAI, air pollution exposure in early childhood can contribute to the development of asthma in children “by impacting the developing lung and immune system,” which can impact respiratory health for the rest of their life. The World Health Organization (WHO) also reports 4.2 deaths every year as a result of ambient air pollution and 3.2 million deaths from exposure to indoor air pollution.
But how exactly does air pollution cause long-term asthma? According to the EPA, “evidence suggests air pollutants suppress genes that regulate the immune system’s ability to differentiate an allergen from a dangerous foreign substance, such as a virus or bacteria. The immune system then goes into action, setting up an inflammatory response whether the substance is harmful or not, which leads to asthma.”
What Air Quality is Unsafe for Toddlers?
The Air Quality Index (AQI) was created to quantify the levels of air pollution and the possibility of potential health effects. Each rating aligns with a color. For example, a green AQI rating under 50 is the best, a yellow rating from 51 to 100 is moderate, and an orange rating from 101 to 150 signifies poor air quality that is unsafe for toddlers with severe asthma, respiratory infections, bronchitis, and compromised lung function as well as those with lung cancer or lung disease. You can check your local air quality daily with AirNow.gov and limit outdoor activities if the levels are unsafe.
How Can I Keep My Toddler Healthy?
Being educated on pediatric asthma and environmental health is the first step to keeping your toddler healthy. However, whether you live in an area with high outdoor air pollution or just want to know how to cut down on air pollution exposure, there are several changes you can make.
- Since nitrogen dioxide pollution is mainly caused by vehicles, living at least 200 yards from a major road can encourage clean air. If it is financially feasible for you to live away from major roads, it will make a huge difference.
- Check the ambient air quality daily and schedule outdoor activities based on the AQI, keeping in mind that an AQI above 101 can be an asthma trigger.
- Regularly change HVAC filters and install radon and carbon monoxide detectors to boost the air quality inside your home.
- Keep your windows closed in the car and avoid traveling during heavy traffic times wherever possible.
- Keep your house windows closed when the AQI is high.
- If possible, set your HVAC system to re-circulate air and shut outdoor intakes.
Even if you live in the city or another area with frequently high air quality index, little steps can go a big way in helping keep your toddler healthy and reducing their chances of suffering from worsening asthmatic symptoms due to the ongoing air pollution crisis.