1 Gotaxe

Does Traffic Pollution Cause Asthma Coursework

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.

On this page:

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

Adult action plan

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

Download (675 KB)

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.

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

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. 

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

Last updated October 2017

Next review due October 2020

Sick of waiting in traffic jams? You could be. Pollution that gathers inside cars in traffic jams and at red traffic lights is far higher than that found in cars that are moving. Now, research published in the journal Environmental Science: Processes and Impacts offers a solution: keep the windows closed.

Close the windows in traffic queues, say experts.

The World Health Organization (WHO) describe outdoor air pollution as a "major environmental risk to health," linking it to 3.7 million premature deaths worldwide in 2012.

Air pollution contributes to lung cancer, asthma, and other respiratory diseases, and it has been associated with heart disease and stroke. All of these can be fatal.

In 2013, the WHO classified outdoor air pollution in cities as being as carcinogenic to humans as smoking was in February 1985.

In the United States, exposure to particulate matter in the air is the eighth leading cause of death each year. In London in the United Kingdom, deaths related to air pollution are estimated to be 10 times higher than fatalities caused by road traffic accidents.

Research led by Dr. Prashant Kumar, from the University of Surrey, U.K., has shown that 25 percent of exposure to harmful particles when driving occurs in the 2 percent of the journey time that drivers spend passing through intersections with traffic lights.

Pollution at intersections is 29 times higher than on the open road

At intersections, vehicles slow down, stop, rev up to move when lights turn green, and they are closer together.

Fast facts about air quality
  • On the U.S. air quality index, the worst scoring places on 26 August, 2016 were in New Jersey and California
  • These locations scored between 101-150 on the index, considered "unhealthy for sensitive groups"
  • "Good" scores are from 0-51, and 151 or over is "unhealthy."

This leads to levels of peak particle concentration at a signalized intersection that are 29 times higher than those found in free-flowing traffic. In addition, the cars move slowly, so that drivers are exposed for longer. As the output is ongoing, the pollution does not disperse but lingers and accumulates.

As a result, cars waiting in traffic jams or at red lights contain up to 40 percent more pollution than those that are moving.

In a new study, Dr. Prashant and his team have been looking for a solution.

The scientists took measurements of particulate matter in a moving car under five different ventilation settings. The car traveled 6 kilometers and passed through 10 different traffic lights.

They took measurements at 3-way and 4-way intersections managed by traffic lights.

The authors wanted to see how the different ventilation settings would affect particulate matter inside the car. They also looked at how levels of pollution within the car compared with those experienced by pedestrians crossing roads at the same traffic lights.

Results showed that the ventilation system of the car was efficient at removing coarse particles from the air, but as the concentration of coarse particles fell, the number of fine particles increased. The highest levels of pollution within the car tended to occur when the windows were closed at the traffic lights and the fan was on.

Pedestrians at intersections were also exposed to additional pollution, but the level of particulate matter to which motorists were exposed was up to seven times that experienced by pedestrians.

Close the windows and shut off the fan in traffic jams

To reduce the amount of pollution exposure while waiting in traffic jams and at traffic lights, the authors suggest that, weather permitting, motorists should close car windows and switch off the fan. This, they say, can reduce the chance of breathing in hazardous levels of air pollution by 76 percent.

They also recommend setting the fan so that the air circulates internally. Recirculating the air prevents pollution from entering from outside. 

"Where possible and with weather conditions allowing, it is one of the best ways to limit your exposure by keeping windows shut, fans turned off and to try and increase the distance between you and the car in front while in traffic jams or stationary at traffic lights. 

If the fan or heater needs to be on, the best setting would be to have the air re-circulating within the car without drawing in air from outdoors. Of course improving the efficiency of filtering systems of vehicles in future could further benefit to curtail the on-road exposure in such situations."

Dr. Prashant Kumar

In 2015, Dr. Prashant and his team called on drivers to be aware of the hazards of pollution at intersections, and they suggested that keeping a distance from the car in front could help to reduce the risk.

The researchers urged pedestrians to find walking routes that did not include signalized traffic intersections. They also noted that local transport authorities could help by synchronizing traffic signals, as this can reduce waiting time. Alternative traffic management systems such as flyovers could also help to alleviate the problem, they say.

Find out how air pollution may increase the risk of heart disease.

Leave a Comment


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *