If you’ve experienced nausea, a cold or an anxiety attack, chances are someone has told you that you need to get some “fresh air” to alleviate your symptoms. In theory, that’s great — who doesn’t love fresh air? But does this longtime, often recommended cure have any actual health benefits? We’ve asked some experts to separate truth from myth.
The fresh-air cure
While fresh air has likely been used as a treatment for a variety of ailments for centuries, let’s start our look back in the mid-19th century when Dr. Edward Livingston Trudeau — a medical doctor living with tuberculosis — moved his family up to the remote village of Saranac Lake, New York. Before there was a medical treatment for the severe pulmonary condition — also known at the time as consumption — the standard of care was ensuring that tubercular patients got plenty of rest, hearty foods and yes, fresh air.
While this method worked for some people — particularly if they were living in a sanatorium designed to house and treat those with tuberculosis — it wasn’t nearly as effective as drugs like streptomycin (which started to be used in the late 1940s) and eventually fell out of favor with medical professionals as the primary cure for TB. But even though fresh air may not have been the cure itself, the idea that it had health benefits has never gone away.
How about now?
As it turns out, while doctors today aren’t prescribing months of sitting on a cure porch as the main treatment for pulmonary conditions, many do see the merit in taking in the fresh air.
“While there is no magical ‘fresh-air cure,’ there are clearly both physical and emotional health benefits to spending more time outside in the fresh air,” Dr. Eric Morley, a pediatrician at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, tells SheKnows.
Specifically, Morley says that winter is “illness season” for children, in part because they spend so much time indoors — whether that’s in day care or school — in close proximity to other kids, which allows for germs to spread easily.
“The more time we spend in close quarters indoors with other people, the more exposure we have to germs and the more likely we will get sick,” he explains. “Even just opening a window or door allows fresh air to circulate and contaminated air to be let out.”
What does fresh air actually do for us?
Not only are the benefits of fresh air real, but they also impact both our physical and mental health.
Dr. Anthony Wong, an internist at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says staying indoors where you are breathing stale or recirculated air makes our bodies have to work harder to get the oxygen they need and fresh air will help to rejuvenate our bodies and minds.
“Serotonin is a neurotransmitter hormone in the brain that is vital to maintaining a healthy emotional state,” Wong tells SheKnows. “Changes in serotonin levels have been associated with anxiety and depression. Because the level of serotonin in our brain is affected by the amount of oxygen that you inhale, it makes sense that getting some fresh air can improve your sense of happiness and well-being.”
In addition, Dr. Jimmy Johannes, a pulmonologist at Long Beach Medical Center in California, says there is some evidence supporting the idea that fresh air is beneficial to your health.
“Specifically, we know that long-term air pollution and smoke exposure can be associated with various lung diseases, mainly asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease as well as heart disease,” he tells SheKnows. “There is also data to suggest that good ventilation may reduce the risk of contagion from airborne diseases like tuberculosis.” On top of that, Johannes says that getting fresh air “from the great outdoors” by camping or hiking in a wilderness environment has been associated with reduced stress and improved mental health.
But for many people, getting clean, fresh air may not be as simple as stepping outside, Johannes notes. “If you live in an area that tends to get good air quality, then go ahead and open your windows and take a deep breath,” he says. “But if the air quality is poor, especially near major highly trafficked roads or highways, industrial areas or large airports, air from an HVAC system with a good filter may be better for you.”
If you are able to get some (relatively) fresh air, Wong recommends actually stepping outside.
“Taking a short break outdoors can leave you feeling refreshed and more energized to get back to your daily tasks,” he explains. “People with allergies to pollen or people with skin cancer may need to take special precautions before going outside. However, we should all take advantage of the fresh air outdoors. It’s merely a few steps away from where you are now… and it’s free.”
A version of this story was published March 2018.