By Trisha Malhotra
The difference between ‘smoker’s cough’ and a regular cough is that the former involves cackling and wheezing resulting from phlegm lodged in your throat. This wet cough is followed by shortness of breath, chest pain, a sore throat, and suffocated panting. Most smokers have resigned themselves to a life of lowered lung capacity, and will often say something like ‘it is what it is’ when asked to drop the habit by a concerned relative. But what if you develop a smoker’s cough without ever having touched a cigarette in your life? What if you struggle with the same respiratory complications as someone smoking a pack a day, except you get none of the nicotine buzz?
Welcome to India. You might be thinking- now, that’s just unfair. But that’s hazardous air quality for you. Chronic respiratory complications arise simply from breathing in certain parts of our country (*cough* Delhi). The fact is that exposure to irritant gases, particulate matter, mixed pollutants, second-hand tobacco smoke, and molds drastically increase coughing and wheezing across animal studies. In addition, certain air contaminants can permanently alter essential functions of the lungs and can also target the nervous system and the immune system.
When a herd of guinea pigs was exposed to passive cigarette smoke, a majority experienced a constriction in their bronchioles, which is the part of the lungs responsible for supplying it with oxygen. If your bronchioles shrink, this means less air is delivered to the lungs with each in-breath. Breathing becomes harder, and severe conditions like pneumonia can arise over time. All this, simply from breathing the wrong air? Doesn’t sound reasonable, does it? Fortunately, a lot can be done to reduce the impact India’s air can have on innocent non-smokers.
For most of us, this one isn’t hard unless your job requires you to stay outside. Certain pollutants known as ambient air pollutants can infiltrate the air indoors from outside, but the concentration is much lower than what you would experience outdoors. Commuting is a big factor when it comes to exposure to air pollutants, with traffic jams causing the bulk of pollutant exposure for most people. The rate of air exchanged can be reduced by as much as 50% with closed windows, and the use of air conditioning. This reduced exposure makes a huge difference over time.
Clean the air indoors
Another level of protection against pesky air pollutants is the use of portable or central cleaning systems for the air indoors. An electrostatic air cleaner or a pleated media filter has been shown to remarkably improve the quality of air indoors. The particulate matter known as PM2.5 can also be effectively eliminated through the use of a single portable air cleaner with a HEPA filter.
Avoid breathing through your mouth
All of this fluff aside, simply the way you breathe air can make a major difference to the amount of pollutants your body is exposed to. Your nose exists for a reason. It comes with a natural filter in the form of cilia (nose hairs) that filters out clean air by catching particles and water-soluble gases. These particles get stuck in your nose and are prevented from entering the airway where they can cause serious damage. When you breathe from your mouth, these particles get a VIP ticket to your lungs.
When pollution levels are high, avoid physical activity outdoors
People love this recommendation because they simplify it to “don’t work out” but that’s not what health professionals are saying. Instead, professionals recommend that you ‘don’t work out outside if there's an obvious cloud of smog that looks dangerous to inhale’. You can always exercise from home, or in an indoor gym. But definitely don’t go for a run through a plume of air pollution. Sometimes there will not be an obvious smoke cloud for you to avoid, but checking the air quality index (AQI) in your locality can tell you if the air is safe to breathe.
Living in India comes with its downside, but the effective management of impure air consumption can make all the difference to whether or not you develop respiratory conditions. Respiratory health is not just about not smoking. You might also want to switch up for daily commute from traffic jam heavy cab drives to PM2.5-free metro lines. Check out our plant based respiratory supplement to aid your management.