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. Pollution 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.
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, can quickly irritate your airways and trigger asthma symptoms
- the particles found in dust, soot, 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 pollution can affect some people more than others. Even if pollution doesn’t usually affect your asthma, I’d still recommend following 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 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.
It’s not surprising that 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 pollution levels are 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.” Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP
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.
- Follow us on Twitter and Facebook for timely pollution alerts and asthma advice.
- Check the pollution forecast in your area with DEFRA’s UK wide forecasts.
- Always carry your reliever inhaler with you to quickly deal with any symptoms.
- Limit time spent outside or go out earlier when air quality tends to be better.
- Travel outside of the rush hour if you can.
- Stick to the back streets.
- Avoid physical activities and exercise close to main roads on days when pollution levels are high.
- Keep your car windows closed, especially if you’re stuck in traffic.
- Find out about pollution levels if you’re travelling abroad.
- Look after your hay fever too, if pollution makes it worse.
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.
- Find out how other people with asthma cope with high pollution
- Call our Helpline if you’re worried about the effects of pollution.
- Find out how poor indoor air quality affects asthma too.
Last updated July 2017
Next review due July 2020