Air pollution

What are the effects of air pollution on your lungs?

The effect that air pollution has on your lungs depends on the type and mix of pollutants in the air, the concentration of pollutants and how much of the pollutant gets down into your lungs.

If you’re exposed to high pollution levels, for example on a busy road or during a high pollution episode, you may experience immediate symptoms. These include irritated airways, feeling out of breath and coughing.

If you have a lung condition, high levels of pollution can also cause an exacerbation of your symptoms, such as an asthma attack or a COPD flare-up. People with asthma may notice that they need to use their reliever inhaler more than normal when pollution is high.

Does air pollution cause lung conditions?

Yes, research suggests that long-term exposure to air pollution can contribute to the development of some lung conditions. There’s good evidence that outdoor air pollution contributes to lung cancer, and it’s possible that long-term exposure to air pollution is linked to the development of asthma. It’s unclear yet whether UK levels of outdoor air pollution have a role in causing COPD, but in the UK air pollution is a smaller risk factor than smoking.

Research also shows that if children are exposed to air pollution for a long period of time, it can affect how their lungs develop.

Every year in the UK, it’s estimated that the equivalent of 40,000 early deaths can be linked to breathing in polluted air.

Understanding air pollution statistics

  • estimated: We don’t know exactly how many early deaths are linked to air pollution. The estimate of 40,000 comes from a 2016 report by the Royal College of Physicians. It’s based on the government’s estimates of early deaths from particulate matter (PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide.
  • equivalent: 40,000 early deaths is an average across the UK population. It helps show the health impact of air pollution. The effects of air pollution are complex – it will impact people differently depending on their health. For example, it can make existing illnesses worse.
  • early deaths: The 40,000 figure refers to the number of people dying earlier than they should. Usually this means before the age of 75.
  • linked: Air pollution doesn’t cause deaths on its own. Most of the early deaths will be caused by an existing heart or lung condition, but air pollution may have made the condition worse.

If you’re interested, you can read an explanation of this statistic from the University of Cambridge.

Next: Who’s most at risk from air pollution? >

Download our air pollution information (434KB, PDF)

Last medically reviewed: April 2017. Due for review: April 2020

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.