By Wyatt Myers
If you live in a big city, you only have to look at the hazy skyline on a hot, windless day to see that cars are bad for air quality. But all this traffic is an even greater problem if you have air pollution-related asthma. It's pretty clear this pollution can exacerbate symptoms and even cause an asthma attack.
Though many of us rely on cars every day, they can negatively affect asthma in more ways than one. If you frequently experience indoor asthma, sitting inside a car can be a trigger for you.
Luckily, getting rid of asthma symptoms doesn't mean giving up your car or moving to a town with a one-lane road. With a few simple strategies, you can minimize the effects of air pollution caused by our love affair with automobiles.
Cars, Air Pollution, and Asthma
According to Sumita B. Khatri, MD, the co-director of the Asthma Center at the Cleveland Clinic Respiratory Institute, the two main culprits that contribute to air pollution asthma are atmospheric ozone and particulate matter from car exhaust in the air. "Both pollutants can strain airways in asthma by increasing inflammation and susceptibilities to allergies and infections," Dr. Khatri says.
And the more cars on the road, the worse the effects can be. "In general, more cars means more particulate pollution in the air, so larger cities with more vehicular traffic are worse than smaller cities with less traffic," says Gary Weinstein, MD, chairman of pulmonology at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Dallas. "In addition, summer tends to be worse than winter for air pollution, probably due to more driving, mowing, and other activities. Midday is worse than early or late in the day for the same reasons."
Not surprisingly, Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta, in addition to several cities on the Eastern seaboard, are some of the worst places for air pollution, according to AirNow.gov, where you can monitor your local air quality.
When it comes to avoiding asthma symptoms related to air pollution, the best approach is to avoid being outdoors when air quality is at its worst. "Avoid doing outdoor activities or exercise from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.," says Dr. Weinstein. "Early morning or late evening would be better. If those times cannot be avoided, consider doing exercise indoors, if possible."
Stopping Asthma in Your Car
Outside the car, it's easy to understand how exhaust fumes can contribute to asthma. But you might be surprised to hear that asthma can be a serious issue inside your vehicle, too. Whether it's pet dander, smoking, strong odors, dirt and debris, or particulate matter that travels into the car from outside, all of these factors can lead to experiencing indoor asthma in cars.
To protect yourself, Khatri recommends steering clear of your known triggers when in your car — don't allow friends to smoke, avoid taking your pet with you, and use non-offending air fresheners and cleaners if the harsh chemicals in commercial products irritate you. He suggests regularly wiping down all seats in your car with a damp cloth or using washable seat covers if pets must ride in the car.
When driving on high-ozone days, try using your air conditioner and keeping the windows up. Conversely, roll down the windows to bring in fresh air on a good air quality day.
Another helpful tip from Khatri to avoid this type of indoor asthma is to turn off the engine when you're idling — whether quickly parked or waiting for someone to come out of the doctor's office. "There's no disadvantage to stopping and restarting the engine if you plan on staying put for 30 seconds or more because it takes less fuel to turn it off and re-start it," she says. "This helps reduce ozone and particulate matter pollution for all."
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Women's Mental Health
A study published last year in the <em>Journal Of Health Economics</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/08/24/commute-womens-health_n_935361.html" target="_hplink">women's mental health</a> is affected more than men's by a daily work commute. The study included data from the British Household Panel Survey, which found that women who had kids of preschool age also a fourfold increased risk of experiencing stress from their commute than men. <br><br> "We know that women, especially those with children, are more likely to add daily errands to their commute, such as food shopping and dropping off and picking up children from childcare," study researcher Dr. Jennifer Roberts, of the University of Sheffield, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/money/2011/aug/22/communting-more-stressful-women-men" target="_hplink">told <em>The Guardian</em></a>. "These time constraints and the reduced flexibility that comes with them make commuting stressful in a way that it wouldn't be otherwise."
Exhaustion And Less Sleep
A 2011 study in the journal <em>BMC Public Health</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/10/31/commute-health-car-bus_n_1067503.html" target="_hplink">commuting by car, subway or bus</a> is linked with extra stress, exhaustion, poor sleep and even more missed days from work. <br><br> The study involved commute and health data from 21,000 people ages 18 to 65 who live in Sweden and work full-time. People who traveled via a vehicle to work were more likely to have health complaints than people who walked or biked to work, the researchers found.
Heart Attack From Traffic Pollution
A study in the <em>British Medical Journal</em> showed that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/09/22/traffic-heart-attack-pollution_n_974668.html" target="_hplink">breathing in the fumes from heavy traffic</a> can hike up your risk of heart attack for the following six hours. <br><br> The good news is the heart attack risk goes down gradually after that time frame. Researchers said it's not that the air pollution causes people to have heart attacks who wouldn't otherwise have them, but rather could <a href="http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/234784.php" target="_hplink">hasten heart attacks</a> in people who would have had one anyway, Medical News Today reported. <br><br> That study included 79,288 people in the United Kingdom who had had a heart attack between 2003 and 2006. Researchers looked at the time of day of their heart attacks, and also looked at traffic pollution in different parts of the UK.
People whose commutes are longer than 15 miles in distance are also <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/09/work-commute-overweight-health-blood-pressure_n_1500459.html" target="_hplink">more likely to weigh more</a>, according to research from Washington University in St. Louis. <br><br> The <a href="http://www.elsevier.com/wps/find/authored_newsitem.cws_home/companynews05_02321" target="_hplink"><em>American Journal of Preventive Medicine</em> study</a> showed that people have to travel that distance every day to go to work are also less likely to fulfill exercise recommendations. They also found that people traveling more than 10 miles a day to go to work are more likely to have hypertension. <br><br> "It could just be a function of having less discretionary time to be physically active," study researcher Christine M. Hoehner, Ph.D., MSPH, <a href="http://abcnews.go.com/Health/Wellness/commuting-drives-weight-blood-pressure/story?id=16294712#.T6lCHp9Ytvc" target="_hplink">told ABC News</a>. "Or it could be related to people burning fewer calories because they're sitting longer."
Increased Risk Of Divorce
Swedish researchers from Umea University have found a link between <a href="http://www.alphagalileo.org/ViewItem.aspx?ItemId=104021&CultureCode=en" target="_hplink">long commute times and divorce</a>. <br><br> The researchers found that couples who have to commute long distances have a 40 percent higher risk of divorcing than other people. Their findings are based on 2 million people in Sweden who were either married or living together, analyzed between 1995 and 2005. <br><br> The researchers found that it's the first few years of traveling long distance for work that is particularly hard on couples.
Is A Deterrent To Friend Time
A 2008 study in the <em>American Journal of Preventive Medicine</em> shows that the length of distance you have to travel could actually influence whether you <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18312808" target="_hplink">participate in social activities</a>. <br><br> The study included data from the 2001 National Household Travel Survey, which looked at commute times and the social nature of the trips. "Socially-oriented" trips included those to see friends or family; for entertainment purposes; to go to a wedding, funeral or other event; to go exercise or play sports; to go to school or a religious event; to take someone somewhere; to go to a meeting for an organization; to attend to an obligation; and to just do something fun (recreational). <br><br> The researchers found that if a person's commute time was going to be longer than 20 minutes -- and especially if it was longer than 90 minutes -- the likelihood of the person <a href="http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18312808" target="_hplink">participating in the social event</a> decreased.
A study by Hewlett Packard showed that commuting can <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4052861.stm" target="_hplink">raise stress even higher</a> than that of people who work as police officers and fighter pilots, BBC News reported. <br><br> "The difference is that a riot policeman or a combat pilot have things they can do to combat the stress that is being triggered by the event ... but the commuter, particularly on a train, cannot do anything about it at all," study researcher Dr. David Lewis, of the International Stress Management Association <a href="http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/4052861.stm" target="_hplink">told BBC News</a>. "So it is this sense of helplessness combined with the stress that is perhaps the most worrying aspect of it." <br><br> The researchers examined the heart rates of study participants after commuting during peak hours, and found that their heart rates were a lot higher than the "at rest" rate, <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2004/nov/30/research.transport" target="_hplink"><em>The Guardian</em> reported</a>.
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