13 Things to Do When the Air Quality Is Unhealthy

When the air in your area is unhealthy, it could lead to respiratory issues. Take these 11 steps to help keep your family & pets safe.

Published June 17, 2024
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A tourist woman wearing a cloth face mask walks on the busy streets

Whether it's fire season or just run-of-the-mill smog, poor air quality can negatively affect your health. This may be especially true if you are at high risk with conditions like asthma. But even if you aren't a high-risk individual, the air quality can be so poor that it presents a threat to everyone. Here's what to do when air quality is unhealthy.

1. Monitor the Air Quality in Your Area

The Air Quality Index (AQI) measures the air quality of an area and rates it on a scale from 0 to 400+. When the AQI reaches 100 or higher, the air quality is considered unhealthy for sensitive groups, although some high-risk individuals, such as someone with lung or heart disease, could have health concerns starting at an AQI of about 51. 

  • 0-50: Good; little or no risk
  • 51-100: Moderate; acceptable but could be a risk for very sensitive people
  • 101-150: Unhealthy for sensitive groups
  • 151-200: Unheathy; even if you aren't high risk, you could have physical effects
  • 201-300: Very unhealthy; everyone is at increased risk of health effects
  • 300+: Hazardous for everyone
Need to Know

If you're concerned about the air in your area, visit Air Now and enter your zip code. 

2. Minimize Time Spent Outdoors

Spending time outdoors in unhealthy air conditions increases your risk of being affected by poor air quality. So stay inside as much as you can. 

3. Wear a Mask if You Must Be Outside

The good news is that in a post-COVID world, most of us are pretty familiar with all the different types of masks and probably already have some still around the house. The type of mask you should wear when you must be outside is an N95 mask, which filters out pollutants.

Helpful Hack

If you live somewhere that has a regular fire season or other seasonal air quality issues, make sure you purchase masks well in advance of the season. Otherwise, they could be super hard to find when you need them.

4. Keep Doors & Windows Closed

Keep the harmful air outside of your house. Of course, we understand that sometimes you'll need to open your door to come and go, but close it quickly and don't leave it standing open. 

5. Run Air-Conditioning or Heat on Recirculate

Keep outside air from entering your home via HVAC by turning your heater, heat pump, or a/c on recirculate. Do the same when you're in your car.

6. Use HEPA Filters in HVAC

Replace the filters in your HVAC system with HEPA filters. Since I live in the Pacific Northwest where we have an annual wildfire season, we keep a supply of these on hand and replace them just before fire season and then again after an unhealthy air event.

Related: How to Change Your Furnace Filter (& How Often You Should)

7. Consider Smaller Air Filtration Appliances for the Rooms in Your House

These are definitely buy-now-before-poor-air-quality-hits items because they fly off store shelves when air quality is poor. Be sure to maintain in-home air filters by maintaining the filter changing schedule, or it won't be very effective. 

8. Avoid Outdoor Exercise

Young caucasian woman jogging on the modern compact treadmill at her home at room with big windows.

If you're a runner or walker, it's a good time to bring it indoors to a treadmill. Avoid overexerting yourself if you are outdoors.

9. Wear Protective Eyewear Outdoors

This is a good idea if you have sensitive eyes or when the air quality is a risk for everyone. Sunglasses, glasses, or goggles will all keep your eyes protected and minimize irritation.

10. Sooth Irritated Eyes and Nasal Passages

Even when you stay indoors and do everything by the book, your eyes and nasal passages can become irritated. Run a humidifier in the house to keep everything moisturized, and use eye drops and saline nasal sprays to soothe irritation. 

11. Keep an Eye on Local Burn Bans and Restrictions

During poor air quality events, your community may have local bans or restrictions on outdoor and indoor burning, including things like charcoal or wood grilling. So before you burn anything or use a solid-fuel grill or smoker, check with your local authorities.

12. Don't Forget About Your Pets

Pets are affected by poor air quality, too. Keep pets indoors as much as possible. Limit their outdoor time to bathroom breaks. Just like with humans, avoid prolonged outdoor exercise, as well. Make sure your pet stays well-hydrated, and if they get debris in their fur, give them a bath. Call your vet if you notice signs of distress. Be especially watchful of brachycephalic pets like pugs or Persian cats. 

13. Seek Emergency Care if You Need It

If you experience severe respiratory symptoms such as shortness of breath, chest pain, or extreme fatigue, go to your local urgent care or ER. 

Stay Healthy and Safe When Air Quality Is Unhealthy

It stinks when the air quality is terrible during the summer, and you have to change or cancel your outdoor plans (I've been there!). But it's better to be safe than sorry. Your plans can wait until the air quality is better and it's healthy and safe for you to head back outdoors for some summer fun. 

13 Things to Do When the Air Quality Is Unhealthy