5 Signs You're Breathing Toxic Air & What To Do About It

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Last month, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director general of the World Health Organization, called air pollution a "silent public health emergency." Writing in the Guardian, he noted that over seven million people die as a result of air pollution every year, while nine out of 10 people worldwide breathe toxic air. In the UK, nitrogen dioxide levels have exceeded European Union limits for almost a decade, according to the Guardian — so much so, the country has been referred to the European Court of Justice. With pollution at such alarming levels, what are the signs you're breathing toxic air — and is there anything you can do about it?

A recent report from the World Health Organization found that 1.8 billion children under the age of 15 — that's 93% — breathe dangerously polluted air every day, as Bustle reported. In the Guardian, Dr Tedros wrote that up to a third of deaths from lung cancer, strokes, heart attacks, and chronic respiratory diseases are caused by air pollution. After the UK continued to break nitrogen dioxide limits — which it has done since 2010 — Dr Maria Neira, director of public health at the World Health Organisation, said, "While air pollution knows no borders and puts everyone at risk, those most vulnerable — pregnant women, children, the elderly, those already ill or poor — are particularly affected."

To prevent the injurious impacts of air pollution, real change must occur on a global level. "We need strong commitments and actions from everyone: government decision-makers, community leaders, mayors, civil society, the private sector and even the individual," Dr Tedros wrote in the Guardian.

There are, however, actions you can take in the meantime to minimise the health effects if you're frequently exposed to toxic air. UK Air offers a daily pollution forecast, enabling you to track levels of pollution in your area. On days when pollution is high, London Air advises limiting exercise or other strenuous activity undertaken outside, while those with existing lung conditions should ensure they're taking their medication as advised by their doctor. Wondering what the short-term impacts of breathing polluted air might look like? Keep reading.

1You Can't Stop Coughing

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You probably expected this one: breathing polluted air can result in a tickly cough, according to London Air. That's even in otherwise healthy people, who haven't previously been diagnosed with any sort of lung condition. And about those who do have a pre-existing health issue...

2You Have An Asthma Attack

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According to the British Lung Foundation, breathing polluted air might exacerbate the symptoms of those with existing lung conditions, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). People with asthma might find they have an asthma attack, or rely more on their inhaler. Those with COPD could experience a flare-up: you might produce more mucus, feel more breathless, or cough more.

3Your Eyes Or Throat Are Irritated

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Air pollution can result in irritation of the eyes, throat, nose, and even skin, National Geographic says. According to CNN, polluted air can aggravate inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, and psoriasis; it can also contribute to ageing of the skin, and even increase the risk of skin cancer. And the Guardian says that high levels of pollution can result in sore eyes and a dry throat.

4You Have Difficulty Breathing

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Another admittedly obvious one: a major sign you're breathing polluted air, according to the British Lung Foundation, is feeling out of breath or struggling to breathe. Exercising might make the problem worse, so it's worth heeding the aforementioned advice and reducing your physical activity.

5You're Dizzy Or Nauseous

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Anyone who's forgotten to wind up their car window before driving into a tunnel will be keenly aware of this potential impact of air pollution: it can result in dizziness, nausea, or one heck of a headache, National Geographic says. In conclusion? Exposure to air pollution, even in the short term, is nothing to sniff at; in the long term, it's a public health crisis.