Air pollution

How can I protect myself from air pollution?

On high pollution days, the best thing you can do to reduce your exposure to air pollution is to avoid main roads and busy streets where possible. If you have a lung condition or have children, this is even more important.

On days when pollution levels are low, you don’t need to be worried about going outside. Children shouldn’t be stopped from going to school or taking part in games. But even on these days, it’s a good idea to avoid spending long periods of time in places where pollution levels build up, such as busy roads – particularly if you have a lung condition. However, it’s important to remember that exercise is important for good health and everyone should be encouraged to walk regularly.

As air pollution levels rise, people with lung conditions are at an increased risk of becoming ill and needing treatment. When levels are high, the government will issue an air pollution alert or you may see reports included as part of the weather forecast. If you or your child has a long-term lung condition, it’s sensible to take extra precautions on these high pollution days:

  • Reduce or avoid strenuous, outdoor exercise. If you have a lung condition, exercise has many benefits, so if possible, keep doing your exercise indoors in a well-ventilated room or gym.
  • Stay away from pollution hotspots such as main roads and busy road junctions.
  • Try to get to work a little earlier before rush hour has begun and levels of pollution have built up.
  • If you cycle, run or walk as part of your commute, use back streets away from the bulk of vehicle congestion.
  • Walk on the inside of the pavement – the further you are from the traffic the lower the pollution levels are.
  • Make sure you carry your reliever inhaler with you if you use one.
  • If you have asthma, make sure you use your preventer inhaler regularly.
  • Make sure you carry or know your asthma plan. If you don’t have one, ask your doctor for one.

If you’re worried about indoor air pollution, we have more information on how to improve air quality in your home.

If you find your condition is getting worse, or if you’re getting wheezy or coughing from walking outside, get in touch with your health care professional.  If you’re out and about, you could also call into any chemist, where a pharmacist can also give you advice. Anyone who experiences discomfort such as sore eyes, a cough or a sore throat should consider reducing their levels of physical activity outdoors.

Should I wear a face mask?

At the moment there’s very little evidence to recommend the use of face masks. Sophisticated masks with active charcoal filters can help filter out nitrogen dioxide, but these don’t keep out the smallest particulate matter, which is most damaging to your health. Many people find wearing a mask very uncomfortable, and some people with a lung condition say breathing is more difficult with one.

Until there is good evidence that wearing an appropriate mask will help, masks should not be considered as an effective way to reduce air pollution exposure.

How do I find out about air pollution levels?

The UK-air website produces a daily air pollution forecast with a postcode finder service to monitor air pollution levels in your area. You can also get air pollution updates on the @DefraUKAir Twitter feed or by calling the Defra helpline on 0800 55 66 77.

Some areas of the country have local air pollution monitoring:

Scotland

Northern Ireland

Wales

Greater London and South East England

  • airText offers free text alerts for London, Chelmsford, Colchester or Cambridge.
  • City Air app offers email alerts for London.
  • London Air monitors pollution levels across London and provides a mobile app.
  • airAlert offers free alerts for Surrey, Sussex, Hampshire and Sevenoaks.

In other areas of the UK, there may be a free air quality alert service provided by your local council or health authority. To find out about air quality across the world, visit State of Global Air.

How can I help tackle my contribution to air pollution?

Our campaigns team suggests:

  • In general, everyone who is able to should try to reduce their contribution to air pollution by walking or cycling rather than taking a car, particularly for short trips. This will reduce emissions and keep you active too. You could also consider using public transport or sharing a car.
  • If your children attend a local school, consider methods to raise awareness of air pollution at the same time as reducing levels, such as anti-idling zones, car sharing or park and stride scheme.
  • If you’re considering buying a car, look at its nitrogen dioxide emissions and check the real world emissions for that car. Avoid buying diesel cars. Buying a hybrid or electric vehicle will also help to cut down your emissions.
  • If you have a car, ensure it’s serviced regularly to minimise its contribution to air pollution. If you have a diesel car, make sure the diesel particulate filter is maintained and emptied regularly.
  • Consider how your home contributes to local air pollution by monitoring your energy demand and waste. For example, you could install energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs, insulation and draught-proof windows.
  • If you’re concerned about pollution in your local area, you can contact the environmental health department of your local authority. You should be able to find the address and phone number in your local phone book or on their website.

If you’re worried about indoor air pollution, we have more information on your home and your lungs.

If you want to find out more about what we’re doing to help tackle air pollution, visit our campaigns page.

Harriet, from our policy team, explains about diesel car emissions:

“Many diesel cars produce more nitrogen dioxide and particulate matter than petrol ones.

The extent depends on the age and model (Euro standard) of the car. On average, compared to the petrol model:

  • Euro 4 (2005) diesel cars produce over 3 times more NO2
  • Euro 5 (2009) produce 3 times as much
  • Euro 6 (2014) produce 25% more than their petrol equivalents

In 2016 a government report found diesel vehicles tended to have higher NO2 emissions in the real world, in some cases 10 times as high.”

We use your comments to improve our information. We cannot reply to comments left on this form. If you have health concerns or need clinical advice, call our helpline on 03000 030 555 between 9am and 5pm on a weekday or email them.

Download our air pollution information (150KB, PDF)

Last medically reviewed: April 2020. Due for review: April 2023

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.