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6 symptoms of poor air quality

poor air quality and pollution over a city
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Are you wondering what symptoms of poor air quality are? On average, Americans spend 90% of their time indoors, where concentrations of some pollutants, like mold spores and dust, can be much higher than outside. 

Air pollutants can worsen the symptoms of many respiratory conditions, such as asthma, cystic fibrosis and lung cancer, which makes it even more important for people with these conditions to keep the air in their homes as clean as possible. Our guide to the best air purifiers can help if you are thinking of purchasing an air purifier as a way to improve the air quality in your home.

But what are the most common symptoms of poor air quality? And how can we improve the air quality in our homes? We spoke to the experts to find out.

Irritation of the eyes, nose and throat

Our immune system will respond to the presence of allergens by activating the mucous membranes in our nose and throat, making us cough, sneeze, and our noses run. You may also find that you have itchy, watering eyes, which is another symptom that your immune system is being activated by contaminants in the air. 

Dust, microbial contaminants like mold spores or airborne bacteria, tobacco smoke, pesticides, disinfectants, and even perfume can irritate our respiratory systems and cause symptoms or poor air quality. Studies (opens in new tab)have shown our homes can be full of these irritants, as well as some outdoor pollutants that make their way inside, particularly if you live in a heavily populated area.

Respiratory diseases

Symptoms of respiratory diseases such as asthma are often much worse in areas of poor air quality. Airborne contaminants such as smoke, pollen, and dust can trigger asthma attacks, which can be fatal, particularly in children (opens in new tab)

Enesta Jones, spokesperson for the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA (opens in new tab)), explains the best ways to support a person with asthma in your home. “Americans spend up to 90 percent of their time indoors, and indoor allergens and irritants play a significant role in triggering asthma attacks,” she says. “Triggers are things that can cause asthma symptoms, an episode or attack, or make asthma worse. If you have asthma, you may react to just one trigger or you may find that several things act as triggers. Be sure to work with a doctor to identify triggers and develop a treatment plan that includes ways to reduce exposures to your asthma triggers.”

A woman coughing. Coughing is usually the first sign of a respiratory infection.

(Image credit: Shutterstock)

Symptoms of lung cancer and cystic fibrosis are also often worsened by poor air quality, due to the impact of these conditions on the lungs. While most people are aware that smoking is a common contributing factor for the development of lung cancer, you might not be aware that poor air quality, particularly air pollution, can also increase your risk of developing this disease. 

Dizziness

Dizziness is another common symptom of poor air quality. Indoor contaminants such as carbon monoxide will often cause feelings of lightheadedness and vertigo, which can indicate that the air you’re breathing might be contaminated. Both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide can poison you, cause tissue damage, and even cause death if you are exposed to them for too long. 

If you find your symptoms disappear after leaving the area, it is important that you call a professional to check gas mains for potential leaks. Poorly maintained household appliances such as boilers, gas fires, cookers and water heaters can leak carbon monoxide and cause some symptoms of poor air quality. You can purchase carbon monoxide detectors fairly inexpensively from most hardware stores or supermarkets. 

Headaches

You may find yourself experiencing headaches if you are in an area with poor air quality. Similar to dizziness, headaches can be a sign of carbon monoxide poisoning, or if you are in a poorly ventilated area, can also be a sign of high carbon dioxide levels. Studies (opens in new tab)have shown that living in highly air polluted areas, such as near a main road or airport, has been linked to exacerbated respiratory problems, infectious diseases, and has even birth defects. 

Woman holding head

(Image credit: Getty)

Fatigue

Fatigue can be another symptom of poor air quality, often linked (opens in new tab)to respiratory conditions such as asthma. The toll that respiratory conditions take on the body can lead to someone with these conditions running out of energy faster than a healthy person, or struggling to complete basic tasks that would be considered easy. If someone has active symptoms of asthma, they may find that they also experience fatigue due to the psychological stress of trying to control their symptoms and avoiding an attack.

Legionella

Poorly maintained air conditioning systems can harbor legionella bacteria, which can lead to the development of legionnaires’ disease. These bacteria live in the water in air conditioning systems and can be propelled into the air when the system is switched on. They can then be breathed in, particularly in areas with poor ventilation. It is important to keep air conditioning systems clean, so that you can reduce your risk of developing this nasty disease from poor air quality.  

How to improve air quality

Knowing the air quality index for your local area can help you to understand how much of a problem air quality is where you live. Investing in an air purifier is also an affordable way to reduce the amount of allergens and irritants in the air in your home. 

You can ensure that your home is properly ventilated when using aereolised sprays, printers or burning anything like incense or candles, which produce soot. Clean and properly maintain appliances like air conditioners and cookers, and ensure that you have carbon monoxide detectors set up to check your indoor air for potentially dangerous contaminants.

EPA spokesman Nick Conger outlines his top tips for improving indoor air quality.  “There are three simple strategies EPA advises for improving indoor air quality,” he says, “Source control, improved ventilation and air cleaners.”

Source control is when we identify sources of poor air quality in our home and neutralize them. For instance, if you have deteriorating asbestos insulation in your home or workplace, it would be most effective to have this safely removed by a professional to negate its effects. Outdoor pollutants such as pesticides might also be coming into your home - so finding a natural alternative to these in your garden may effectively reduce your indoor air pollution too. 

Lou Mudge
Health Writer

Lou Mudge is a health writer based in Bath, United Kingdom for Future PLC. She holds an undergraduate degree in creative writing from Bath Spa University, and her work has appeared in Live Science, Tom's Guide, Fit & Well, Coach, T3, and Tech Radar, among others. She regularly writes about health and fitness-related topics such as air quality, gut health, diet and nutrition and the impacts these things have on our lives. 

She has worked for the University of Bath on a chemistry research project and produced a short book in collaboration with the department of education at Bath Spa University.