How to deal with respiratory problems if your air is as toxic as Delhi air

A week after Diwali and Delhi’s pollution levels are four times that of when Beijing declares it an emergency. I mention Beijing because a few years ago it topped the list of most polluted cities, and the government had to take some very drastic, sustainable measures in order to make sure that its citizens were breathing easy, if not healthy.

Here are some numbers for you.

Air Quality Index Levels of Health ConcernNumerical
Good0 to 50Air quality is considered satisfactory, and air pollution poses little or no risk.
Moderate51 to 100Air quality is acceptable; however, for some pollutants there may be a moderate health concern for a very small number of people who are unusually sensitive to air pollution.
Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups101 to 150Members of sensitive groups may experience health effects. The general public is not likely to be affected.
Unhealthy151 to 200Everyone may begin to experience health effects; members of sensitive groups may experience more serious health effects.
Very Unhealthy201 to 300Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects.
Hazardous301 to 500Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.
  1. Walking out in Delhi at the current level of pollution is equivalent to smoking 40 cigarettes.

  2. The smoke from lighting a fireworks snake is the equal of smoking 64 cigarettes.

  3. Delhi has remained on the ‘Severe’ setting of the air quality index for over a week.

  4. Bangalore has touched ‘Very poor’ often in the last week, including in areas close to lakes (thanks to leaves and garbage burning activity near the lakes).

  5. Respiratory diseases in Bangalore spike by nearly 70 percent from October onwards till March, among children.

These are horrific numbers. Numbers that are indicative of an ineffective government who cannot ensure that the air its citizens breathe is healthy. But it is also a failure on our part as adults, and, more importantly, as parents, to live our lives in such a way that we give our children a world that they can live in, in a healthy manner.

So what it is that you can do?Doctors around the city confirm that Diwali onwards, people come in with all kinds of complaints: from something as small as a running nose and watery eyes to severe bronchitis and asthma attacks. As a practice that you should keep in mind that morning walks and late evening outings during and after Diwali are a bad idea because the air pollution levels really affect breathing and your lungs. Added to the mix in cities like Bangalore are allergens such as pollen in the the air. This means wild bouts of sneezing and eventually burning eyes, headache, and colds. It’s a lot worse for kids and babies who are still building their immune systems.

“This is a lot like latching the door after the horse has bolted,” says Dr Pramila Raghavan, who runs an independent paediatric practice in Bangalore. She is exceedingly critical of the air situation in Delhi and says we shouldn’t assume the same won’t happen in cities like Bangalore and Hyderabad. “Cities such as Chennai and Mumbai are only saved because of the sea; otherwise they’d be a lot worse. Bangalore has no way out but to take huge, drastic measures to curb pollution. When parents come to me and ask what can we do, I first tell them that they need to stop using their cars for short drives,” says Dr Raghavan, wryly. But now that kids are falling sick and we are alarmed at pollution levels, what is it that we can do?

  1. Get your kids to wear a pollution mask if they travel in a school bus that’s not air conditioned is Dr Raghavan’s advice. Don’t ride a bike during peak hours if you can help it, without a mask. And don’t do early morning walks or work out in the open.

  2. If you have the budget for it, get an air purifier for your home. She also adds that you could buy indoor plants that help clarify the air in your home. In a related point, she says, “Find out from someone what local trees are good for planting in which area and encourage people to plant them. This is a long term solution.”

  3. If you have an asthmatic child, keep her inhaler at hand at all times. Keep spares at home.

  4. If your child is having trouble breathing, humidify the room with a humidifier in order to keep the air moist.

  5. Related to moisture is your own moisture: keep your child hydrated, and moisturise nostrils so that the polluted air doesn’t dry them out, leaving your entire nose and mouth area irritable.

  6. Again, if your child can’t breathe well while sleeping, get them to steam before they sleep.

  7. Monitor the toxicity of air in your surroundings with the real-time air quality index visual map, regularly. Make your voice heard when you see garbage burning, or polluting vehicles.

  8. When bathing your child, run the water before the child enters and fill the bathroom with steam. This will help clear out the child’s lungs.

  9. Get your kids to be active and exercise in order to fill their bloodstreams with antioxidants and keep their lungs healthy.

These are all the things you can do to manage and maintain good respiratory health under the difficult circumstances that we live in today, says Dr Raghavan. Of course, as always, head to the hospital or your trusted doctor if you think the symptoms are too severe.