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Quick facts: Air pollution and the lungs

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The effects of air pollution and advice to pass to patients

The effects of air pollution on lungs:

  • Depends on the type and mix of pollutants;
  • The concentration in the air;
  • How much of the pollutant actually inhaled.

People exposed to high pollution levels may have symptoms straight after. These can include:

  • Irritated airways;
  • Feeling out of breath;
  • Increased chance of having an asthma attack.

Breathing in polluted air for a long period of time has been shown to increase the occurrence of lung conditions, including cancer.

Who is at risk?

Air pollution is especially harmful to:

  • People who are living with lung conditions, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD);
  • Older people and children.

Healthy people who work or exercise outdoors could also experience symptoms such as feeling out of breath or cough when they are exposed to moderate or high levels of pollution.

Advice for patients

When levels of air pollution are high, people with a lung condition should:

  • Reduce or avoid strenuous, outdoor exercise (exercise indoors in a well-ventilated room or gym);
  • Stay away from pollution hotspots such as main roads and road junctions;
  • Avoid the rush hour;
  • Carry a reliever inhaler if one is prescribed
  • Use a preventer inhaler regularly to manage asthma;
  • Keep the windows closed and recycle air in vehicles;
  • Consult a doctor is symptoms worsen.

There is little evidence to recommend the use of face masks. Wearing one can be uncomfortable and can make breathing more difficult.


Summary of advice from the British Lung Foundation. To learn more about their campaign click here

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