Hesperian Health Guides

Lung (Breathing) Problems

In this chapter:

Air pollution caused by burning fossil fuels (coal, oil, diesel, and natural gas) puts many toxic chemicals and harmful particles, like soot and smoke, into the air we breathe. Air pollution causes serious health problems. According to the World Health Organization, it kills 3 million people each year.

The two main parts of air pollution are a toxic gas called ozone, and particulates. Particulates are tiny bits of soot, smoke, metals, chemicals, dust, water, and rubber from tires. The smallest particles are the most harmful, because they get deepest into the lungs. Exposure to particulates can cause asthma and bronchitis attacks, and increases colds, flus, and other respiratory infections. Ozone is a strong irritant, causing a person’s airways to tighten, forcing the lungs to work harder, and making existing lung problems worse. It can also cause headaches, wheezing, chest pain, nausea, and fatigue, and makes a person more vulnerable to lung infections, including tuberculosis or pneumonia.

Almost immediately, smoky or dirty air causes eyes to water, a dry throat, coughing, or wheezing. High levels of air pollution can also damage the lungs. Pollution can worsen already existing heart problems or lung disease, and cause the heart and lungs to work harder to supply oxygen to the body, causing difficulty breathing, fatigue, and chest pain.

Long-term exposure to polluted air makes:

  • lungs age more quickly.
  • chronic lung diseases develop, such as asthma, chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and lung cancer.
  • people die earlier, most often from heart attack or stroke.

Air pollution is most dangerous for people who already have heart problems or lung diseases, pregnant women, children under 14 whose lungs are still developing, and people who work or exercise vigorously outdoors.

Prevention and Treatment
  • Stop smoking tobacco.
  • Avoid or reduce exposure to cooking smoke, automobile exhaust, and other chemical fumes.
  • Prevent chest infections by hand washing and getting vaccinations.
  • Quick-relief medicines for breathing and cough syrup may be useful.

Some health problems from air pollution are not curable, such as cancers, emphysema, and asthma, although people can live with these problems for a long time. Getting away from polluted air can slow the progress of many lung diseases, but this is not possible for many people.

Chronic bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation (swelling) of the main airways in the lungs. Smoking or second-hand smoke from tobacco, air pollution, chemical fumes, and dust are the main causes of chronic bronchitis.

When a person’s airways are irritated, a thick mucus forms and plugs them up, making it hard to breathe. Signs of chronic bronchitis include a cough producing yellow-green mucus, difficulty breathing, tightness in the chest, wheezing, fatigue, headaches, and swollen ankles, feet, and legs.


Asthma is a common chronic illness for children and adults. Signs are wheezing, coughing, loss of breath, and chest tightness. These problems happen when the breathing passages in the lungs close down and the lungs fill with mucus. Industrial pollution and toxics are common causes of asthma, but asthma attacks are caused by many things.

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During an asthma attack, sit forward, hands on knees, hunch your back, expand your chest, and try to relax.

To relieve an asthma attack, inhale medicines that open the breathing passages. If quick-relief medicine is not available, try strong coffee or black tea, ephedra (ma huang), or pseudoephedrine. Quick-relief medicines control the effects of an asthma attack — they do not prevent attacks. For treatment, see a health worker.


Long-term treatment can help prevent asthma attacks, make them milder, or less frequent. If no long-term medicine is available, use of Nigella sativa (black seed, kalonji, habba sawda) can prevent asthma attacks. 2 teaspoons of black seed 1 time a day with honey or yogurt will strengthen the lungs and immune system.

To prevent asthma attacks, avoid or reduce contact with what triggers the attacks, including:

  • smoke from cooking, heating, and tobacco.
  • outdoor air pollution from factories and automobiles. When pollution is bad, people with asthma should stay indoors and not do hard physical work.
  • chemicals in paints, solvents, pesticides, perfumes, and cleaning products.
  • dust mites. Remove stuffed toys and rugs from sleeping areas.
  • animal hair and feathers, including from pets.
  • cockroaches and other insect pests.
  • mold.
  • emotional and physical stress that often comes with major life changes, overwork, and hard physical exercise.


Asbestos is a mineral that was once used for fire protection in buildings and some appliances. Asbestos is made of tiny fibers that get into the air and are breathed into the lungs where they cause permanent damage. Asbestos is so dangerous it has been banned by many governments.

Exposure to asbestos leads to asbestosis and lung cancer. Early signs of these illnesses are coughing, shortness of breath, chest pain, weight loss, and weakness.

This page was updated:05 Jan 2024