Home » Respiratory » If you have asthma, this is putting you in danger
Respiratory Health 2019

If you have asthma, this is putting you in danger

Joe Farrington-Douglas

Head of Policy and External Affairs, Asthma UK

Air pollution could affect more than three million people with asthma in the UK and is a leading cause of life-threatening asthma attacks. Joe Farrington-Douglas, Head of Policy and External Affairs at Asthma UK explains the impact air pollution is having on people with asthma and why tougher measures are needed.


Imagine being scared of leaving the house or stepping off a train because breathing in toxic air could leave you fighting for breath. This is a daily reality for many people with asthma. Two thirds say that poor air quality makes their asthma worse, putting them at an increased risk of a life-threatening asthma attack.

Asthma is a public health crisis

Air pollution can trigger asthma attacks as it can irritate the airways and cause inflammation in the airways making it harder for people to breathe.

Air pollution can also cause asthma in children. Research part-funded by Asthma UK found that traffic fumes in particular can stunt children’s lung growth, making them more susceptible to developing asthma.

Other recent studies revealed that babies born in the most polluted areas have an increased risk of dying by up to 50% and revealed that days of high air pollution trigger an extra 193 hospitalisations for asthma across nine major UK cities each year.

For nearly a decade, the UK has been failing to meet its current clean air targets, set and enforced by the EU. In October this year, NHS boss, Simon Stevens, declared air pollution ‘an emergency’.

Toxic air is driving people out of cities

Fern, 26, moved to London from the countryside in 2013 to attend university; but the air pollution triggered life-threatening asthma attacks. After nine hospital admissions – including 10 days in an induced coma – she was told by her respiratory consultant that it was too dangerous for her to stay in the capital. Fern was forced to move out of London and say goodbye to her dreams of working as a criminal lawyer.

The solution? Stronger, legally binding targets to reduce air pollution

Asthma UK funds research into the effects of pollution on asthma and is part of the Healthy Air Campaign, a coalition of 19 organisations, raising awareness of air pollution and actively lobbying the UK Government for cleaner air.

There is a proposed law to tackle air pollution – the Environment Bill – but it’s missing something quite important… tangible targets to replace the EU laws after Brexit. Without targets, the government cannot be held to account, it is merely paying lip service to the issue and has missed a huge opportunity to protect people with asthma from toxic air.

Cut your risk of an asthma attack

If you have asthma and are worried about air pollution, there are things you can do to protect yourself.

Take your preventer inhaler (usually brown) as prescribed to soothe the inflammation in your airways and make them less likely to react to asthma triggers. People should follow their written asthma action plan (which sets out how to recognise and manage worsening symptoms) and make sure that they have an asthma review with their GP or nurse at least once a year.

Everyone with asthma should also carry their reliever inhaler (usually blue) with them at all times in case of emergency. If people are affected by pollution, it may help to avoid pollution hotspots like junctions and bus stations and stick to back streets where pollution levels are lower.

Click here to read the latest on asthma from the pharmaceutical industry

For more information and top tips, visit: www.asthma.org.uk/pollution

Next article