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Air pollution and asthma

Get top tips for managing your asthma when pollution levels are high

Asthma UK is campaigning for cleaner air, to reduce the risk of asthma attacks and stop people with asthma having to worry about the air they breathe. Find out more about our policy work on air pollution. 

5 top asthma tips for high pollution days

  1. Stick to your preventer routine so you can cope better with pollution, and your other triggers.

  2. Carry your reliever inhaler with you to quickly deal with any symptoms.

  3. Check the pollution forecast in your area with DEFRA's UK-wide forecasts, or on a weather app. 

  4. Avoid pollution hotspots like main roads, junctions, bus stations and car parks, and use quieter back streets as much as possible. If you can, go out earlier before pollution levels have had a chance to build up.

  5. See your GP if you’re getting symptoms three or more times a week whether it’s pollution or something else triggering them. 

Pollution: why it makes your asthma worse

Around two thirds of people with asthma tell us poor air quality makes their asthma worse, putting them at risk of an asthma attack.

This is because pollution can quickly irritate your airways and trigger asthma symptoms. Some pollution particles are small enough to get right into your lungs.

Air pollution is a possible risk factor for everyone with asthma, but some people are more at risk, and may be affected by pollution even on moderate or low pollution days:  

  • Children and young adults with asthma have faster breathing rates and their lungs are still developing.
  • Older people with asthma, particularly if they have other long-term conditions too, like COPD or heart disease.
  • People with severe asthma, or asthma that’s difficult to control.
  • People with hay fever - pollen combined with pollution can mean you feel the effects of your allergy more.

“Everyone’s asthma is different, and like all triggers, air pollution can affect some people more than others. If your asthma is well managed and you rarely have symptoms you’ll be much more able to cope with the effects,” says Dr Andy

Check the pollution forecast

DEFRA’s Daily Air Quality Index (DAQI) tells you whether pollution levels are low, moderate, high or very high near you.

They have health advice for people with asthma, and others who may be more sensitive to pollution:

  • When pollution is low there’s usually no need to worry or change your plans.
  • When pollution is moderate, and you’ve noticed symptoms, consider avoiding too much physical activity outdoors
  • When pollution is high, you should limit the physical activity you do outdoors, especially if you’ve noticed symptoms.
  • When pollution is very high you should avoid strenuous physical activity outdoors.

Pollution levels and the weather

Summer or winter, what the weather’s like can make a difference to how much pollution there is hanging around.

For example:

  • Unsettled, windy or blustery weather usually keeps pollution levels low.
  • Pollution might affect your asthma more when it’s a warm, still day, especially if you also have an allergy to pollen.
  • Pollution on a cold, still, foggy day might affect you more, especially if cold air also triggers your symptoms.

If you’re affected by weather and pollution, try using an app or website which gives you daily forecasts of both, for example BBC weather, or the Met Office.

“Take time to note down any symptoms you get, and include that day’s pollution levels, and weather. You might see a pattern of when your asthma gets worse, or identify which season it’s worse for you,” says Dr Andy.

“It could help you plan ahead, with your GP’s help, to make sure your asthma isn’t so affected.”

Smoke from bonfires, barbecues and wood-burning stoves

Bonfires, barbecues, and the smoke from open fires or wood burning stoves pollutes the air too.

We know this can be problem for some people with asthma because smoke can irritate the airways and bring on asthma symptoms.

If smoke is bothering you, you can shut doors and windows to limit how much smoke gets into the house.

And make sure you have your reliever inhaler nearby in case your asthma symptoms come on.

If it’s an ongoing problem, you should contact your local council to see what they can do to help.  

Can air pollution cause asthma?

Research shows that high levels of air pollution can cause asthma in both children and adults.

Children living in areas with high pollution are more at risk. And 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.

Watch:

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 (163 KB)

Contact the Asthma UK Helpline for more support

If you’re worried about the effects of air pollution on you or your child, you can contact our Helpline on 0300 222 5800, Monday-Friday, 9am-5pm.  Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728.

Last updated January 2020

Next review due January 2023