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Summer heat can be dangerous to breathe

The U.S. Capitol is shrouded in haze during the morning commute June 26, 2003 in Washington, DC. The summer heat can be dangerous for breathing. (Getty Images)

WASHINGTON – The summer weather is uncomfortable for most people in the Washington area, but for those with asthma and other chronic respiratory conditions, the season can be downright dangerous.

When the sun is intense, irritating particles are released into the air. On humid days, there is not enough of a breeze to push the particles away, and the air becomes progressively more polluted.

“When you take a deep breath and fill your lungs, those particles themselves are actually doing damage to the lung tissue,” says Dr. Marla Shuman, a pulmonary specialist in Fairfax, Va.

She says various lung diseases — including asthma, emphysema and bronchitis — are associated with periods of inflammation and irritation. People with respiratory problems who breathe in this “witches brew” risk a flare-up of their underlying condition.

Shuman says those with breathing issues need to be vigilant about their medication, and should keep rescue inhalers close at hand in the summer. She also recommends this specific population stay indoors as much as possible during periods of intense sunlight, usually from 10 a.m.-2 p.m.

Shuman says it’s really not a good idea for anyone to be exercising outside during those hours in the summer, especially on a Code Orange or Code Red day. These ratings mean the air is unhealthy for certain sensitive groups (Code Orange) and pollution levels are high enough that even healthy individuals should limit activity outside (Code Red).

Not everyone follows this guidance. Shuman says she has seen people running on their lunch hour in the middle of summer.

“I don’t think even a healthy person should be out there doing that kind of exercise on a Code Red or Code Orange day,” she says.

While someone who has a lung issue is likely to feel the effects of bad air quickly, healthy people who breathe this type of air on a regular basis may be setting themselves up for future problems.

“What we see as doctors is that when we age, you lose some lung function because of what you are exposed to and even living in certain high pollution areas can damage your lungs,” says Shuman. “You don’t have to have to be a smoker, you don’t have to have asthma, to develop bronchitis and obstructive lung disease.”

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