|It’s officially summer and the past few weeks have definitely brought on the heat. Beach trips and barbecues make us more inclined to spend time outside, but sun protection and bug repellent aren’t the only things we have to worry about. Dr. Michael Marcus, Director of Pulmonary Medicine, cautions that respiratory problems are definitely more common during the summer months. Heat and humidity can make it difficult to breathe and often exacerbate current lung and respiratory health conditions.
Rising Ozone Levels
The ozone layer in our atmosphere is necessary to protect the earth, but, when ozone accumulates on the ground, it’s an extreme irritant for the lungs, nose and eyes. Ozone results from the interaction of automobile exhaust and sunlight, which forms the toxic gas. As heat and sunshine increase throughout warmer months, levels of ozone near the ground where people are walking increase at a rapid rate. Living in a crowded, metropolitan area, Brooklynites are exposed to higher rates of car exhaust and, thus, increased levels of ozone.
“As the ozone accumulates, people with lung problems – like those with asthma and emphysema – are the first to feel its effects,” states Dr. Marcus. “They start to get short of breath, especially during activities such as exercise.” However, as ozone levels continue to rise, even people without underlying lung problems will be affected. “Ozone causes both an inflammation of the lungs, as well as narrowing of the passageways,” explains Dr. Marcus. “This combination decreases a person’s lung reserve and ability to breathe comfortably.” People are then unable to get enough oxygen to their body, which can lead to shortness of breath or lightheadedness.
Dehydration & Humidity
Heat and humidity can cause people to dehydrate much more quickly. “When a person dehydrates, the natural secretions in the body, especially in the lungs, also dehydrate,” notes Dr. Marcus. These natural secretions then become thick, and the thicker they are the harder they are to clear from your lungs. Even without underlying respiratory problems, people might have more trouble breathing because the lungs aren’t working as efficiently due to thicker mucus.
In hot, humid environments, the humidity suspends pollen in the air longer. “If there are pollen or mold spores in the air, the added humidity allows these allergens to stay in the air longer and get into the lungs more easily,” explains Dr. Marcus. Thus, this weather may also exacerbate the symptoms of allergy sufferers, making it difficult to breathe.
How to Beat the Heat
If you want to go for a run, ride a bike or run errands, it’s best to schedule those activities during times of the day when concentrations of ozone and pollen are at their lowest. If you don’t have major allergy problems, Dr. Marcus recommends exercising in the mornings, before it gets too hot. “Exercising before noon is optimal because it limits the amount of ozone, since it rises progressively throughout the day, peaking around 2pm.” However, if you are an allergy sufferer living in the city, the best time to be active is after sunset. “Allergy sufferers should avoid morning activity because pollen is at its highest first thing in the morning, as it settles with the dew overnight,” notes Dr. Marcus. Instead, go for a run after sunset, by which time the pollen, as well as higher levels of ozone, will have dissipated.
As always during these hot months, drink lots of fluids and plan ahead. “If you have asthma or COPD make sure you take your medication before you get out of the house and early enough that it will work,” emphasizes Dr. Marcus. Remember, some medicine may take an hour or two before they start being effective. “There’s no reason to wait till after your symptoms to take your medication.”