“I keep hearing about how bad the air quality is because of the wildfires out west. Should I be worried for my father? He has COPD. What do I need to know about air quality for seniors?” – Carrie from Duluth


We hear more about air quality at certain times of the year, and with the wildfires so prevalent in the summer, it does seem to be more of a concern. The combination of skyrocketing temperatures, increasing humidity, and that haze that hangs in the air is causing the problems right now. Of course, we can have poor air quality for seniors and other sensitive groups any time of year. But what do we mean by air quality, and how can we protect our loved ones who may have difficulty breathing?

When Air Quality Tanks

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the air quality we breathe has declined in recent years. Any time there is an increase in microscopic particles in the air, people with compromised immune systems or respiratory conditions may have difficulty breathing. Those particles may include ash from wildfire smoke, soot from industrial processes, emissions from cars and trucks, pollen, and dust. Low-level atmospheric ozone can also increase the amount of pollution, another factor that impacts air quality. With these fine particles hovering in the air we breathe, you can understand why the sky looks hazy and presents a challenge for seniors and other sensitive groups.

When it gets hot outside, the chemicals and other particles in the air can react with each other and create smog. Heatwaves lead to stagnant air, which means there is nowhere for the smog to go. Urban and low-lying areas may have more of a concern with air pollution, especially when temperatures spike.

Don’t forget about indoor air quality for seniors. Dust, pet dander, mold, and other tiny particles can make indoor air just as tough to breathe as hazy outdoor air does. Air conditioning systems can help, but without changing air filters regularly, those microscopic pollutants recirculate and continue to be a problem.

Why Seniors Are at Risk

What makes air quality for seniors such a sensitive matter? The more people inhale tiny particles, the harder it is to clear them from the lungs, especially for older people who already have shortness of breath or frequent coughing spells. Over time, seniors may have scarring and inflammation because of poor air quality. Add to that the likelihood of other respiratory issues, including COPD like your father has, emphysema, or asthma, and you can see why older people are vulnerable.

Other health conditions can also be a factor, including heart disease, diabetes, and even some types of cancer and dementia. Think of it this way; your body and brain need oxygen to function correctly, and if anything limits the intake of oxygen, any body system may suffer the consequences.

What You Can Do

Check the air quality reports and weather forecasts frequently to know what to expect before your senior spends time outside. On hot and humid days, your loved one may want to spend more time indoors and take frequent breaks. Limiting activity or intensity of exercise is also a smart way to avoid air pollution woes. Limit outdoor time to early morning, when the air is clearer and the temperatures cooler.

To improve your indoor air quality, invest in an air purifier with a HEPA filter to remove tiny particles, mold, dust mites, and pet dander. If your loved one has a pet, have it sleep in a different room. Mold can also impact breathing, so consider having a plumber check for leaks under sinks or elsewhere. Fans also help with airflow inside.

An easy way to deal with poor air quality is by wearing a mask. Chances are good you and your loved one have face masks on hand, so encourage your senior to wear one inside or outdoors when needed.

Good luck and stay cool!


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