Finally, the frigid weather is behind us. Most people are feeling a bit of cabin fever and cannot wait to go outside into the sunshine and fresh air. However, before you store your winter gear and take a few days off to bask in the sun, start a new habit of checking the air quality.

May is "Clean Air Month." As part of your transition into spending more time outdoors, check the state of your air first. The American Lung Association has put together a report, "State of the Air Report," that uses data from air quality monitors located throughout the United States. This report shows that more than 131.8 million people, 42 percent of our nation, live where air pollution levels are often too dangerous to breathe.

Air pollutants are gases and tiny particles released into the air that cause serious health effects such as cancer or that are harmful to our environment. Ozone (smog) and greenhouse gases (carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide and fluorinated gases) are the better-known air pollutants. Other toxic pollutants include lead, nitrogen dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Then there are the allergens, pollen and mold that also contribute to so-called "bad air."

Air pollution can cause respiratory symptoms: cough, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightness. Some people experience symptoms such as chest pain, palpitations and unusual fatigue. Individuals with pre-existing lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis and emphysema or with heart conditions such as coronary artery disease and congestive heart failure are more susceptible to the effects of air pollution. Those who have weakened immune systems, chronic illnesses such as diabetes or others who are generally unhealthy are at risk. People who exercise and work outdoors, as well as children who play outside, are at higher risk too.

The more you learn about the air you breathe, the more you can protect your health. Consult the Air Quality Index (AQI) before planning outdoor activities. Your local news station or newspaper usually reports the forecast for the air quality for your region. There are six AQI categories (good, moderate, unhealthy for sensitive groups, unhealthy and very unhealthy) and six corresponding colors (green, yellow, orange, red, purple and maroon). Each category correlates to an increasingly less healthy level of air pollution.

Imagine the AQI as a yardstick that runs from zero to 500. As the AQI value increases, the level of air pollution increases and the more concern you should be about your health. For example, an AQI value of 50 represents a day of good air quality with little potential to affect public health, while an AQI value over 300 represents hazardous air quality and you should take precautions to protect your health. There are ways to reduce your risk when air pollution reaches levels that are in the unhealthy range.

• Stay indoors on days that the air pollutions levels are high.
• Run the air conditioner to help stay cool and filter the air.
• Take your medicine, whether it's for allergies, asthma or any other chronic illness that may be triggered by the poor air quality.
• Delay using gasoline-powered lawn and garden equipment until air quality is healthy again.
• Refuel vehicles after dusk, when emissions are less likely to produce ozone.

Readers can go onto the AirNow website www.airnow.gov, put in their zip code or state and get a grade for the air quality for the region they live.