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Air pollution and asthma

Get tips and ideas on how to stay safe with your asthma on high pollution days

Just under two thirds of people with asthma tell us poor air quality makes their asthma worse, which puts them at higher risk of an asthma attack. Air pollution – whether that’s traffic fumes, smoke or dust particles – is an asthma trigger that’s hard to avoid, which is why it’s so important to manage your asthma well. If you’re taking your preventer medicines regularly every day your airways are more likely to cope with high pollution days.

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Top tips to manage your asthma in high pollution

Asthma UK's in-house GP, Dr Andy Whittamore shares his top tips for managing your asthma during high pollution days.

Video: Top tips to manage your asthma in high pollution

Asthma UK's in-house GP, Dr Andy Whittamore shares his top tips for managing your asthma during high pollution days.
Transcript for ‘top tips to manage your asthma in high pollution’

0:00 I’m just as concerned as anybody about the effect air quality has on our health.

0:04 And as a GP especially, I see that pollution as a trigger for people with asthma is really, really important.

0:11 Our survey shows that it affects more than two-thirds of people with asthma.

0:15 So, it’s really, really key to make sure that we’ve got people aware of what to do and how to help control their own health.

0:22 There are five key things that we suggest you do to help reduce the effect of pollution on your asthma.

0:30 Always carry your reliever inhaler with you. This can be a lifesaver.

0:32 You never know when triggers such as pollution can really affect your asthma.

0:37 Check air quality alerts.

0:40 Nowadays, we see on the weather reports, on our phones and in particular, on the Asthma UK Facebook and Twitter feeds - they tell you what the air quality is going to be like.

0:48 Use that information. Keep your asthma well. Prepare yourself when your triggers are going to be bad.

0:54 Close your windows, whether you’re driving through the city or especially if you’re stuck in traffic.

0:59 Shut your car window to prevent polluted air getting in and affecting your airways.

1:03 But, even if you’re living near a main road or in a city, close your windows at home, because it can be the same problem.

1:09 Stop the polluted air getting in and affecting your asthma.

1:13 Avoid busy main roads, whether you’re cycling, walking, jogging through the city.

1:19 Think about different routes you can take, so you’re not exposing yourself to the same levels of pollution.

1:24 We certainly advise not jogging, running or taking exercise when pollution is at its highest and if you can find back roads to go on, even better.

1:34 Look after your asthma, even when you’re well.

1:37 The single, most important tip I pass to my patients is take your preventer inhaler every day, as prescribed.

1:43 A written action plan can also help, and keep in touch with your doctor or nurse to stay well.

Related resources
Written Adult Asthma Action Plan - close-up

Adult action plan

Using an asthma action plan will help you to stay well. Download and fill in with your GP.

Download (951 KB)

Pollution: what’s the risk to people with asthma?

When pollution levels are high we all breathe in harmful substances, but if you have asthma, you’re more likely to feel the effects. Pollution is more of a risk for people with asthma because:  

  • pollutants, for example in traffic fumes, or wood smoke, can quickly irritate your airways and trigger asthma symptoms
  • the particles found in dust, soot, smoke, and diesel fumes are small enough to get right into your lungs, making your airways inflamed and swollen and bringing on asthma symptoms
  • pollution can make you more sensitive and more likely to react to your usual asthma triggers (such as house dust mites, pollen, pets, moulds and fungi).

How worried do you need to be?

Air pollution is a possible risk factor for everyone with asthma. But the good news is if your asthma is well managed and you rarely have symptoms you’ll be much more able to cope with the effects.

Some people with asthma need to take extra care:

  • Children and young adults with asthma are more at risk from the effects of pollution because they have faster breathing rates and their lungs are still developing.
  • Older people with asthma, particularly if they have underlying COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) or another long-term condition such as heart disease, may find it harder to cope with pollution.
  • People with severe asthma, or asthma that’s difficult to manage, may find that pollution makes their symptoms worse even on low pollution days.
  • People with hay fever or a pollen allergy may notice pollution makes their pollen allergy worse.

“Everyone’s asthma is different and like all triggers air pollution can affect some people more than others. Even if pollution doesn’t usually affect your asthma you should still follow our top tips to reduce the chance of it catching you out” – Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP

How can you tell if air pollution is triggering your asthma?

Keeping a symptom diary for you or your child and noting pollution levels can help you identify patterns, and give you a clearer idea if pollution is making your asthma worse. Always see your GP if symptoms continue once pollution levels have dropped.

When air pollution levels are high, and for up to a day afterwards, you might notice:

  • you’re more sensitive than usual to your other asthma triggers
  • you’re coughing or wheezing more
  • your chest is tight
  • your nose and throat feel scratchy
  • your peak flow score is lower than usual, a sign that your airways are reacting to a trigger, which could be pollution
  • you need to take your reliever inhaler more.

Can being exposed to pollution actually cause asthma?

There’s some evidence that air pollution plays a part in causing asthma. More research needs to be done but we do know that:

  • being exposed long term to high concentrations of air pollution can cause asthma in children and adults
  • if you’re exposed to high levels of pollution when you’re pregnant, whether you have asthma yourself or not, your baby could be more likely to develop asthma
  • children living in areas with high pollution are more likely to have reduced lung function as adults.

Coping with high pollution days

It’s not surprising that air pollution is worse in cities, and around busy roads, particularly when traffic is moving slowly. But it’s also bad close to airports, seaports and industrial sites.

Try to avoid pollution hotspots like junctions, bus stations and car parks on high pollution days.  And if you’ve got a city break booked, check out the pollution levels there before you go.

It’s also a good idea to know when air pollution levels are likely to be worse. For example: 

  • Afternoons and evenings – pollution is usually higher later in the day because it’s had a chance to build up.
  • Rush hour – when there are larger numbers of vehicles on the road.
  • Still, sunny days can sometimes leave a toxic smog.
  • When it’s humid – hot, still air means pollutants are allowed to build up.
  • Still, cold days trap pollution close to the ground causing winter smog.
  • High winds and atmospheric changes bring pollutants (including dust from the Sahara) over from southern Europe, topping up local levels, often resulting in smog alerts.

Does a face mask help?

Some people with asthma choose to wear a face mask when they go out to limit the amount of pollution they’re breathing in. If you do decide to try a mask, make sure it has a good seal around your face, a fine filter and that you change the filter often.

“There’s not enough evidence to say that wearing a face mask to avoid pollution will make a difference to your asthma symptoms. A face mask can make breathing feel more of an effort. Stop using it if it makes it harder to breathe and always make sure you continue to take your prescribed asthma medicines,” says Dr Andy Whittamore.

Pollution top 10 tips

If you’re taking your preventer medicine every day you’ll cope better with all your triggers, including pollution, and our pollution top tips will be more effective.  

  1. Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for timely pollution alerts and asthma advice.
  2. Check the pollution forecast in your area with DEFRA’s UK wide forecasts.
  3. Always carry your reliever inhaler with you to quickly deal with any symptoms.
  4. Limit time spent outside or go out earlier when air quality tends to be better.
  5. Travel outside of the rush hour if you can.
  6. Stick to the back streets.
  7. Avoid physical activities and exercise close to main roads on days when pollution levels are high.
  8. Keep your car windows closed, especially if you’re stuck in traffic.
  9. Find out about pollution levels if you’re travelling abroad.
  10. Look after your hay fever too, if pollution makes it worse.

Bonfires, wood-burning stoves and other outdoor pollutants

Air quality can be affected by other types of pollution too, such as wood burning stoves, bonfires or cigarette smoke.

Our in-house GP Dr Andy Whittamore gives this advice: “Always carry your reliever inhaler with you, so that you can act quickly when symptoms come on. And remember that taking your preventer inhaler routinely as prescribed means you’re less likely to react to your asthma triggers.”

Bonfires, wood-burning stoves and fireworks

Even when people are using stoves or fires to heat their homes inside, the smoke particles escape into the air outside and we know that some people with asthma notice this irritates their airways and brings on their asthma symptoms.

Neighbours having bonfires in their back gardens or on allotments are considered to be a nuisance by environmental health if they cause pollution and affect people’s health. There’s not much you can do about a one-off bonfire but if your neighbours are having bonfires frequently your local council might be able to help by issuing an ‘abatement notice’ requesting that they stop or limit the activity.

On bonfire night the combination of bonfires and fireworks can cause a spike in localised air pollution, putting people with asthma at more risk of symptoms, so make sure you’re prepared if you’re going out to a fireworks display – continue to look after your asthma well and take your reliever inhaler with you.


Barbecues release dangerous smoke particles into the air. You might be able to avoid having a barbecue in your own garden, but people often have them in public places like parks and beaches. We’ve heard from people with asthma who’ve had to shut their windows to stop smoke from neighbours’ barbecues affecting them. If it’s a frequent problem for you, contact your local council for advice.

Cigarette smoke

People tell us they’ve noticed that being around smokers triggers symptoms, whether that’s outside on the street during lunch hour, walking behind someone smoking in the park, or sitting outside in pubs and restaurants.

What’s Asthma UK doing about air pollution?

Asthma UK is working hard to get the Government to look at air quality and come up with a plan to cut air pollution. Air pollution is a serious public health problem which is why we’re teaming up with other organisations to persuade the government to lead and develop a new Clean Air Act to be passed by parliament. Our aim for this is to clean up air pollution hotspots and ensure people with asthma can stop worrying about the air they breathe and prevent asthma attacks. Find out more about our campaign for cleaner air. 

Last updated October 2017

Next review due October 2020