Air pollution alert – asthma sufferers on alert, but what about the rest of us?

The news has been full of air pollution figures, with stories of a wave of pollution spreading across the UK. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) records air pollution on a score of 1 to 10, and 1st April was no laughing matter for people in North-West Norfolk, with levels reaching a maximum 10. Within a day, pollution had spread to parts of Southern and Eastern England, the Midlands and Southern Wales.

The cause is a ‘perfect storm’ of dust blown in from the Sahara, warm weather, very light south-easterly winds and the continental air flow bringing pollution from other parts of Europe. The consequences are a high risk of breathing problems, especially for those suffering from lung problems such as asthma, COPD, the elderly and those with heart problems.

I always expect a surge of patients suffering from flare-ups of asthma and COPD in winter, when viral infections causing coughs and colds can affect the airways, reducing the amount of oxygen the lungs can pass on to the bloodstream and the body’s vital organs. Any form of exercise increases the body’s need for oxygen, making symptoms worse. That’s why DEFRA is advising anyone with lung or heart problems to avoid unnecessary exercise and to carry their ‘reliever’ inhaler with them. Hay fever sufferers are also more prone to asthma, and high pollen counts, causing severe hay fever symptoms, can make asthma worse too. Most hay fever sufferers are allergic to grass pollen, making their peak time for symptoms May to July. Others are more affected by tree pollen and suffer most from March to May.

Long gone, fortunately, are the days of the old ‘London Smog’, where thousands of people died every year from complications of the blanket of pollution that covered the city. In the UK, we don’t tend to see the same very high levels as the world’s highest ranking polluted cities, Beijing, New Delhi, Santiago in Chile and Mexico City. The combination of sulphur dioxide (produced when fossil fuels are burned, and the major culprit in acid rain) and Nitrogen Dioxide from motor vehicles and generators, are a toxic mix. Cities like Los Angeles, surrounded on three sides by mountains, finds its pollutants trapped under a layer of warm air and unable to escape. But the low wind speeds in the UK this week are contributing to a similar effect, with pollutants not being blown away.

Early warning symptoms of being affected by this level of pollution include sore, irritated eyes and throat and coughing. Asthma and COPD sufferers in particular may also get short of breath or wheezy, especially if they exercise and particularly outside. Otherwise healthy people are unlikely to come to significant harm, but even they should look out for these symptoms and avoid excessive exercise. The warm weather may be enticing, but these are definitely, for some, sunny days to enjoy through the window from the comfort of your own home. There are few occasions where I actively tell people to avoid exercise, but where it might be actively bad for your health, even I will make an exception.

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