I’m an athlete, and an asthmatic, and climate change has been messing with me a bit.

For those wondering what it is like to have asthma, try breathing through a straw while plugging your nose. Not so easy, is it?

Pollutants in the atmosphere make it harder for people with asthma to breathe. California, where I live, has been experiencing an increase in wildfires due in part to a warming climate, making pre-existing asthma worse and contributing to the onset of asthma in others.

I play football, and breathing is an integral part of recovery, even if it’s for 30 seconds between plays. Being an athlete with asthma poses its own obstacles. The trainers are required to hold an inhaler for you, and they must monitor air quality in case it becomes unsafe.

During my collegiate career, I can distinctly remember at least four occasions where all the players with asthma and I were removed from practice because of the air quality. Football trainers clear you for practice only when absolutely necessary. No stomach bug, headache, or cold could keep you from practice. Yet, our trainers were extremely proactive about the air quality. That’s how dangerous dirty air is for people with asthma.

What wildfire smoke does to the lungs

“The concern is not so much the ash,” explains Kent Pinkerton, a professor of pediatrics in the UC Davis School of Medicine and director of Center for Health and the Environment. “That material is not really inhalable because it’s too large. It’s the particles we can’t see that pose the great danger.”

The concern is not so much the ash. It’s the particles we can’t see that pose the great danger.” — Kent Pinkerton, UC Davis School of Medicine

Those particles are called PM2.5, meaning they’re less than 2.5 microns in diameter and can easily penetrate into the lungs. That’s bad enough for adults like me, but it’s even worse for kids, who take in far more air than we do.

“They can receive up to 130 times greater dose than an adult breathing exactly the same air simply because they’re smaller and far more active than most adults,” he said, adding that this can affect their lung development.

Protecting your lungs from wildfire smoke

Since wildfire smoke is an aspect of climate change many of us are dealing with now, what can we do, especially those of us with asthma?

Many young kids with asthma are told they will never be able to play sports, but you can be asthmatic and play sports.

UC Davis football player

Liam Godfrey learned how to manage his asthma as an athlete. He played football for UC Davis. (Courtesy Liam Godfrey)

There are a few strategies I use to manage my day-to-day life as well as succeed in athletics.

The better shape I’m in, the less my asthma bothers me. Cold days are always a little worse, but a proper warm up is usually enough to get my breathing back to normal.

On days when the air quality is exceptionally poor, I try to stay inside and make sure I have my inhaler accessible. If you do not have immediate access to an inhaler, sit or stand upright, and take slow, deep breaths.

That’s how I’m learning to handle days that affect my asthma. Pinkerton suggests a few more ways people of all walks of life can consider:

  • Stay inside in a place with good air filters. Close doors and windows. Air conditioning can help filter some of the bad air.
  • If you’re in a car, set the A/C on recirculation mode.
  • Don’t smoke. Smokers are at increased risk for adverse health effects when air quality is bad. Don’t burn candles, and don’t use a wood-burning fireplace when air quality is poor.
  • If you wear a mask, make sure it is form-fitting or it won’t do much good. A properly fitted, N95 mask can keep out as much as 95 percent of particles.
  • Stay informed. The TV weather report nearly always gives air quality index reports. You can also find up-to-the-minute air quality information online such as at the Environmental Protection Agency’s AirNow.gov website, or your local air district. In the Sacramento region, SpareTheAir.com is a good resource.

Don’t just deal with it, prevent it

What would be even better is if everyone could do their part to reduce emissions overall. Take the bus, ride your bike and if you have to drive, carpool. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. Each car we take off the road helps the problem.

Personally, I ride my bike to work. Luckily, the way there is mostly downhill, but the way back is a little harder. Biking is a great alternative to driving, especially for post-competition athletes, plus it’s a fun way to get the ever mercurial cardiovascular exercise that makes us stronger for whatever challenges come our way.

Liam Godfrey was a Communications major at UC Davis, ’18, where he played football.

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