Extreme wildfires have devastated large swaths of land and dominated news headlines throughout recent years. Among the places scorched by major blazes: California, southeastern Australia, the Brazilian Amazon—and, just recently, much of Canada. The outbreak of fires across Canada had a striking impact, with some of the fallout including blankets of smoke that descended upon the United States, particularly in the northeast. At one point, pollution levels in New York City were 11 times higher than the threshold deemed safe by the EPA.
Even short-term exposure to such extremely poor air quality can lead to myriad health consequences, including irritation to the eyes, nose, throat, and lungs that may cause coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, burning eyes, sinus pressure, and headaches, explains board-certified internal medicine physician Lisa Benya, D.O. Skin irritation and rashes can also develop and remain long after the smoke clears. “Over time, this can cause the chest to become tight and heart rate to elevate, as well as damage done to the lungs and cardiovascular system that cause conditions of reduced lung function such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis,” she says. “This poor air quality can also increase the risk of strokes, heart attacks, heart failure, and certain arrhythmias in the heart.”
If you’re one of the millions living in an area with high air pollution, don’t wait to support your lungs. Here are some expert-approved suggestions for how to take care of your respiratory system when air quality is compromised.
1. Stay indoors as much as possible
The most important health step when it comes to air pollution exposure is simply to decrease your exposure to polluted air, notes board-certified internal medicine physician Austin Perlmutter, M.D., managing director at Big Bold Health. He recommends keeping any outdoor exposure to a minimum when the AQI (air quality index) is higher than 50.
If you’re an outdoor exerciser, this means taking your workouts indoors temporarily. “During exercise, you inhale air and then exhale toxins,” explains naturopathic medical doctor Chelsea Azarcon, N.M.D., author of Losing You, Finding Me. When the air is full of polluted particulate matter, your body has trouble exhaling these toxins quickly enough, which means they can then accumulate in your lungs and lead to irritation, at the very least, she explains.
What’s more: Despite the heart-saving benefits of exercise, a 2021 study published in the European Heart Journal found that exercising in highly polluted air actually increased a person’s risk for cardiovascular disease.
2. Use an air purifier or adjust your air conditioner
Air purifiers can help increase the air quality in your home or workplace and are beneficial when air pollution is significant, says board-certified internist Jacob Teitelbaum, M.D. Air purifiers that contain HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters are ideal, as they’re able to remove 99.97 percent of particles larger than 0.3 microns and can effectively remove smoke that could pose a health risk, he adds.
Don’t have an air purifier? Air conditioners can also be useful—even if you simply leave them on fan mode. “Air conditioners have filters that can remove many of these particles,” explains Teitelbaum. “If the unit has a setting for recirculating the air (as opposed to drawing in air from the outside), set it for ‘recirculate’ so that it doesn’t bring polluted air from outside into your home.”
3. Wear an N95 mask outdoors
If you have to go outside for any reason, consider masking up, ideally with an N95 or K95 mask, as these are the only ones capable of preventing dangerous particles from getting into your respiratory system, notes Benya. Other masks, including fabric masks and surgical masks, offer minimal protection when it comes to filtering out this fine particulate matter, she warns.
4. Maintain a Lung-Friendly lifestyle
While it’s always important to live a healthy lifestyle, it’s even more essential when the air surrounding you is compromised. Eat a diet rich in minimally-processed foods, particularly those rich in omega-3 fats, suggests naturopathic doctor and clinical nutritionist David Friedman, N.D., D.C suggests. Research, including one study published in the World Journal of Surgical Oncology, has shown that omega-3 fatty acids can help regulate the body’s inflammatory response, which can be helpful in cases of lung issues.
“Also, avoid other lung irritants, such as cigarette smoke, chemical fumes, and strong odors,” he adds. That means keeping the harsh cleaning products and strongly-scented candles to a minimum (which is always a good idea but especially helpful right now).
5. Take lung-loving supplements
When air quality is compromised, it’s a good idea to increase your intake of antioxidants, as they respond to the inflammatory oxidative stress created by air pollution, experts say. One potent (and easy to find!) antioxidant supplement is good ol’ vitamin C, which has been shown to help work against some of the cardiovascular effects of long-term pollution, per research published in Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety. Consider taking 1,000 milligrams of vitamin C per day to help support your heart and immune health, suggests Friedman.
Another antioxidant he recommends is n-acetylcysteine (NAC). “This antioxidant may help promote lung health by reducing oxidative stress and thinning mucus, potentially aiding in easing congestion and clearing the airways,” he says. “It is commonly used as a mucolytic agent and can be beneficial in certain respiratory situations.” While there are no universal guidelines on NAC supplementation, amounts up to 1,200 milligrams per day (generally taken in divided doses) are common, Friedman says. (The Vitamin Shoppe brand’s NAC contains 600 milligrams per serving.)
If you prefer to go the herbal route, consider mullein, which has long been utilized to support respiratory health. Research confirms that mullein’s benefits for the respiratory system are legitimate, suggesting that its impact is due, at least in part, to the fact that it contains phytochemicals such as the power antioxidant quercetin.
Of course, if you need individualized recommendations, check in with your healthcare provider—especially if you have existing respiratory health concerns.