Risks to your child’s lungs

How does air pollution affect children's lungs?

Air pollution affects your child’s lungs both before and after birth.

There is little doubt that air pollution is harmful to the lungs. Babies and children are especially vulnerable to air pollution as their lungs are still growing and developing.

Exposure to air pollution can harm normal growth of lung function in the womb, during childhood and right up to the late teens.

In children with asthma, high levels of air pollution are linked to increased asthma attacks.

Air pollution can affect the quality of the air we breathe when we are indoors, outdoors and in the car.

What is air pollution?

Air pollution is harmful particles or gases in the air that we breathe in.

Pollution is not just in the air we breathe when we go out; it can affect the quality of the air we breathe indoors as well.

Sources of air pollution

In towns and cities, the main source of air pollution is road transport.

The air you breathe indoors can be affected by:

Even when you’re in your car, you and your children can breathe in polluted air – from traffic fumes, petrol vapour, tobacco smoke and chemicals. In fact, air pollution levels can often be higher inside your car than outside.

Breathing in too much polluted air is bad for your child’s lungs.

How does air pollution affect babies in the womb?

Being exposed to air pollution in the womb can alter a baby’s lung development.

If your baby is exposed to a lot of air pollution, it can also lead to premature birth and low birth weight.

You can’t avoid air pollution completely while you are pregnant. But there are things you can do to reduce the amount of air pollution you breathe in.

Why is air pollution especially harmful to infants, toddlers and children?

Children are more vulnerable to breathing in polluted air than adults. Their airways are smaller and still developing. They breathe more rapidly than adults.  Buggies and prams put them at the level of car exhausts and hand-held cigarettes.

If your child breathes high levels of air pollution over a long period, they might be at risk of:

  • their lungs not working as well as they grow older
  • developing asthma during childhood or as an adult - and if they have asthma already, air pollution can make it worse
  • wheezing
  • coughs
  • lung cancer when they’re older
  • infections like pneumonia

What can I do to reduce the health risks posed by air pollution?

Air pollution can be very worrying. It may not be practical to move away from a busy city. But there are some steps that parents can take to reduce children’s exposure to air pollution:

  • avoid smoking during pregnancy
  • make sure your child does not breathe in cigarette smoke after they are born, by giving up smoking yourself and avoiding smoky environments
  • walk rather than drive whenever possible. On busy streets, exposure to air pollution can be worse inside car than it is outside
  • find out where your local pollution hotspots are and if you’re walking or cycling, avoid the worst pollution by taking quieter streets. Even walking on the side of the pavement furthest from the road and avoiding the busiest times can help
  • keep your home well aired
  • cut down your exposure to household chemicals.

Related information:

How to reduce the amount of air pollution you and your child breathe.

How to improve the air quality in your home.

Next: What are the early life risks to children's lungs? 

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Last medically reviewed: September 2019. Due for review: September 2022

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.