Air Quality Illnesses: How Poor Air Quality Affects Your Respiratory System

With global air quality reaching dangerous levels in many parts of the world, scientists and air quality specialists have begun closely studying the link between local air quality and public health, particularly in relation to respiratory illnesses.

As part of our mission to make air quality data accessible and narrow the gap between researchers and community scientists, we’re highlighting some of the current research on air quality and respiratory illnesses.

In this blog, we’ll discuss what respiratory illnesses are, how poor air quality impacts your body and how it contributes to the development of illnesses.

What are Respiratory Illnesses?

Respiratory illnesses are diseases that impact the respiratory system—the nose, mouth, throat, windpipe, and lungs. This includes various diseases like lung cancer, bronchitis and asthma.

Why Air Pollution Affects Your Body

We all know air pollution affects us, but the question is how. Well, the impact of air pollution on a person's health is serious because poor air quality is extremely difficult to avoid. Since pollutants in the air are so microscopic, they can easily get past our body's natural defenses to penetrate deep into our respiratory and circulatory system and damage our lungs, heart and brain.

Today, the World Health Organization reports that 9 out of 10 people breathe polluted air. And worse yet, air pollution is known to severely impact the health and well-being of people and animals and contributes to the death of 7 million people yearly.

In addition to that, approximately one-third of deaths from stroke, lung cancer, and heart disease result from air pollution. When we see these statistics, it’s clear that high levels of air pollution have an equivalent effect to smoking tobacco.

Both short- and long-term exposure to air pollutants has a toxicological impact on the body. Such exposure can lead to severe dysfunctions and illnesses, including:

  • Respiratory illnesses
  • Cardiovascular diseases
  • Irritation of the eyes
  • Neuropsychiatric problems
  • Skin conditions
  • Cancers

4 Common Respiratory Issues Caused by Air Pollution

These are the most common respiratory illnesses caused by air pollution:

#1 - Respiratory Infections

One of the most common effects of poor air quality on the respiratory system is an increased risk of respiratory infections. Exposure to airborne pollutants can weaken the immune system, making it easier for bacteria and viruses to enter the body and cause infection.

Common respiratory infections caused by poor air quality include bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis.

And this isn’t just a concern for healthy adults—it’s a concern for all ages. A 2021 study in Poland found that air pollution increased upper respiratory symptoms in children. Another 2021 study in Korea found that short-term exposure to air pollution increased hospital admissions for pneumonia.

#2 - Asthma

Asthma is a chronic respiratory illness that causes the airways to be inflamed and narrow. This disorder causes frequent periods of difficulties in breathing, wheezing, tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and moderate to severe coughing. In the United States alone, over 25 million people have been diagnosed with asthma and about 7 million are under 18.

The notion that outdoor air quality exacerbates pre-existing asthma in children has been supported by scientific evidence for decades, but new research from the National Library of Medicine suggests air pollution also contributes to new-onset asthma.

Finally, reports have shown that elevated levels of air pollutants significantly impact the lungs' ability to function normally. A 2006 study showed certain pollutants such as nitric oxide, ozone, and particulate matter can cause inflammation in the lungs and airways, which leads to asthma.

#3 - Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is an inflammatory lung disease that results in obstructed airflow from the lungs. Symptoms include breathing difficulty, cough, wheezing and increased mucus production. In the past, COPD was most often caused by cigarette smoke, but as mentioned above, air pollution also has a similar impact on the body as cigarette smoke.

Long-term exposure to irritating gasses or particulate matter that are part of regular air pollution is now considered a significant cause of COPD. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the two most common conditions contributing to COPD, which are both negatively exacerbated by air pollution.

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammatory condition that impacts the lining of the bronchial tubes—the tubes that carry air to and from the air sacs (alveoli) in the lungs. While emphysema is a condition where the alveoli are destroyed due to exposure to irritating gasses and particulate matter.

In a study from 2016, researchers found that individuals with COPD who were exposed to high levels of atmospheric particulate matter were more likely to be admitted to the hospital due to complications related to the disorder, including breathing difficulties.

#4 - Lung Cancer

Across the globe, lung cancer is one of the leading causes of cancer-related deaths, and millions of new cases are diagnosed each year. Lung cancer forms in the tissues of the lung, particularly in the cells lining the airways.

One reason perhaps that lung cancer is so common is due to air pollution. In a 2002 study of lung cancer deaths, it was reported that for every 10 μg/m3 increase in Particulate Matter (2.5), there was a significant (4-8%) increase in lung cancer.

As you can see, air pollution and the air quality in your home significantly impact your respiratory health. Poor air quality can result in the development or worsening of existing illnesses. That’s why it’s crucial to know more about the particulate matter levels in your home by investing in an air quality monitor.

You can also mitigate the risks of poor air quality on your respiratory health by keeping your house clean and free of allergens and dust, using an air filter, and reducing your emissions.

Worried about your air quality?

Monitor the Particulate Matter levels around the world with our free, real-time PurpleAir Map or join PurpleAir's mission to make air quality data accessible to everyone by investing in an air quality monitor for your home.

Together, we can be informed and make changes in our daily habits and the community to improve air quality.