Your health

In this section find out how air pollution can impact health and how to reduce your exposure to air pollution.

Short-Term Effects

Air pollution has a range of effects on health. However, air pollution in the UK does not rise to levels at which people need to make major changes to their habits to avoid exposure; nobody need fear going outdoors. The air quality index (DAQI) has been developed to provide advice on expected levels of air pollution. In addition, information on the short-term effects on health that might be expected to occur at the different bands of the index (Low, Moderate, High, Very High) is provided. It is possible that very sensitive individuals may experience health effects even on Low air pollution days. This advice applies to anyone experiencing symptoms. Visit our page covering the DAQI to find out more.

Adults and Children with lung or heart conditions

When levels of air pollutants rise, adults suffering from heart conditions, and adults and children with lung conditions, are at increased risk of becoming ill and needing treatment. Only a minority of those who suffer from these conditions are likely to be affected and it is not possible to predict in advance who will be affected. Some people are aware that air pollution affects their health; adults and children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of inhaled reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.

Older people

As we age our bodies can become more susceptible to illness and we are more likely to suffer from heart and lung conditions than young people. It makes good sense for older people to be aware of current air pollution conditions.

The general population

At Very High levels of air pollution, some people may experience a sore or dry throat, sore eyes or, in some cases, a tickly cough even in healthy individuals.


Younger people and children should be made aware of the effects of air pollution and how to protect themselves but do not need to be kept from school or prevented from taking part in games. Children with asthma may notice that they need to increase their use of reliever medication on days when levels of air pollution are higher than average.

Health Messages and Action to be Taken

When levels of air pollution increase it would be sensible for those who have noticed that they are affected to limit their exposure to air pollutants. This does not mean staying indoors but reducing levels of exercise outdoors would be reasonable. The DAQI offers the following advice:

Air Pollution Banding


Accompanying health messages for at-risk individuals*

Accompanying health messages for the general population







Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, who experience symptoms, should consider reducing strenuous physical activity, particularly outdoors.

Enjoy your usual outdoor activities.



Adults and children with lung problems, and adults with heart problems, should reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors, and particularly if they experience symptoms. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often. Older people should also reduce physical exertion.

Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.

Very High



Adults and children with lung problems, adults with heart problems, and older people, should avoid strenuous physical activity. People with asthma may find they need to use their reliever inhaler more often.

Reduce physical exertion, particularly outdoors, especially if you experience symptoms such as cough or sore throat.

Long Term Effects

Some health effects of air pollution are complex, range in severity of impact and are not yet fully understood. In some cases, damage can be gradual and may not become apparent for many years. In others, there may be impacts from birth. Different conditions can become more of an issue at different stages of life:

Older people

  • Asthma
  • Lung Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Dementia
  • Cardiovascular events (heart attack, stroke)
  • Accelerated loss of lung function


  • Asthma
  • Lung Cancer
  • Coronary heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Children and Babies

  • Low birth weight
  • Reduced lung development
  • Lower lung function
  • Asthma
  • Early signs of cardiovascular disease

The three main conditions associated with air pollution listed above are respiratory illnesses (e.g. asthma), cardiovascular disease, and lung cancer. These conditions contribute to thousands of deaths each year in the UK. There is increasing amounts of evidence to connect long term exposure to poor air quality to dementia, low birth weight and Type 2 diabetes.

Respiratory Conditions

Evidence indicated that exposure to air pollution as children can have a long-lasting effect on lung function by reducing normal lung development and function. Full lung development at an early age is key to building a reserve against decline in function as we get older.

Lung function naturally declines with age but air pollution and living near a busy road can potentially accelerate this decline, for both adults and older people. Minimising exposure is important to further strengthen your reserve, especially if respiratory conditions develop in later life.

Asthma is a common, long-term inflammatory respiratory condition of the lung's airways. It leads to coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. The Committee of Medical effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) advises that air pollution can increase the severity of symptoms in Asthma sufferers. There is also increasing evidence that air pollution may have a role in causing asthma, especially in people who live near busy roads.

For further information about asthma visit Asthma UK

Covid-19 and air pollution

Consistent exposure to air pollution is a known cause of breathing difficulties and other long-term conditions in the lungs and the heart.

When people inhale polluted air, the very small polluting particles, PM2.5 can cause inflammation and damage.

If both long-term exposure to air pollution and infection with the COVID-19 virus come together there may be an additive adverse effect on health. Research work is ongoing in this area to understand the relationship between air pollution and Covid-19 better.

To improve air quality and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, emissions need to reduce significantly. The transition to a green economy with clean, renewable energy sources and sustainable transport by prioritising cycling and walking and use of clean public transport, will further both environmental and public health locally through improved air quality and globally by limiting climate change.

Find out more about analysis taking place by air quality scientists with in-depth comparison on a local and national level in these blogs.

Cardiovascular Disease

Air pollution (especially particulate matter) can both contribute to the development of cardiovascular disease in adults and worsen existing heart conditions. The risk of heart failure, heart attacks, arrhythmias, and stroke is increased by both short and long-term exposure to air pollution in susceptible individuals. This includes older people and anyone with pre-existing cardiovascular and respiratory conditions.

It is not so clear whether air pollution can cause the development of cardiovascular disease in children or make them more likely to develop it as they get older. There is evidence though, that key markers in the development of cardiovascular disease, such as high blood pressure, are present in children after they are exposed to air pollution.

For further information about cardiovascular disease visit the British Heart Foundation

Lung Cancer

Outdoor air pollution and particulate matter pollution were classified as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer in 2013. There is strong evidence that they are linked to lung cancer in adults. The World Health Organisation concluded that there was insufficient evidence for ambient air pollution and childhood cancer in 2005. Cancers can take a long time to develop after exposure to a carcinogen and there is some suggestion that early exposure can contribute to cancer later.

For further information about cancer visit Cancer Research UK

The Royal College of Physicians' report, 'Every breath we take: The lifelong impact of air pollution', presents the findings of multiple international studies regarding each of these health effects.


Outdoor (Ambient) Exposure

Air in all areas of the UK contains some proportion of air pollutants, human-made or natural, and they can affect everyone. A variety of air pollutants have known or suspected harmful effects on human health and the environment. In most areas, these pollutants are principally the products of combustion from heating and power generation, and motor vehicles. Pollutants may not only cause problems in the immediate vicinity of these sources but can travel long distances and affect more people and places.

The health effects associated with the main pollutants of concern are:


Health effects at very high levels

Carbon Monoxide (CO)

Carbon Monoxide reduces the amount of oxygen carried around the body in red blood cells. The result is that vital organs, such as the brain, nervous tissues and the heart, do not receive enough oxygen to work properly.
Children are particularly at risk because they are smaller and their bodies are still growing and developing. People with existing heart problems are also likely to be affected.

Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2)
Sulphur Dioxide (SO2)
Ozone (O3)

These gases irritate the lining of the nose, airways and lungs.  They increase the symptoms of those suffering from lung diseases and increase the likelihood of respiratory problems.


Fine particles can cause a number of health problems as they are carried deep into the lungs. 

Those with existing heart or lung conditions are more susceptible to increased health risks associated with air pollution. The Committee of Medical effects of Air Pollution (COMEAP) advises that air pollution can increase the severity of symptoms for those with heart disease or respiratory conditions such as asthma. Adverse health conditions can be experienced during short term high pollution episodes or as a result of long-term exposure to poor air quality.

Monitoring and modelling of air quality throughout the UK allows air pollution levels to be forecast. Be prepared by being informed of the air pollution levels in your local area using the Kent and Medway email forecast service. For people with respiratory conditions, being aware of local air pollution is important and, when required, other additional measures can be undertaken:

  • Avoid exposure - increased air pollution can trigger asthma symptoms, remaining indoors during periods of high air pollution can reduce symptoms.
  • Limit Outdoor Exercise - Limiting outdoor exercise during periods of poor air quality can reduce the strain on the lungs for those who are susceptible to pollutants
  • Always keep inhalers and medication available
  • If the above steps do not help, consult your doctor

Indoor Exposure

The most important indoor air pollutant to be aware of is carbon monoxide. If you have any kind of combustion appliance, be aware of the risks. Carbon monoxide poisoning can kill. For information see the Health and Safety Executive pages. Ensure the appliance is serviced regularly, appropriately ventilated, and get a carbon monoxide detector.

Also, many products contain, or give off, non-methane volatile organic compounds (NMVOCs). These include paints, household cleaning products, solvents, air fresheners and deodorants. Carpets and furniture can also give off NMVOCs when new. Although not harmful themselves, once released into the air these NMVOCs can undergo reactions to form new chemical compounds which can affect the air quality in your home.

Particulate matter can be given off by some methods of cooking, open fires and solid fuel burners.

Indoor Exposure - Open fires and wood-burners

Release tiny toxic air pollution particles known as PM2.5 into the air and can cause harm to our health. According to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), wood and coal fires are the single biggest source of particulate matter (PM2.5) pollution in the UK; both for indoor and outdoor air pollution. With open fires, the most polluting of all appliances.

It may not always be possible to choose the type of heating in your home, it is therefore important to have adequate ventilation. However, if this option is open to you please consider all the information before choosing to opt for an open fire or woodburning stove. If you need to have a wood burning stove, it is about having the right appliance, the right fuel and then burning it in the right way.

Whilst consumer information is currently limited, it is important to carefully review available information on wood burning stoves and health and the environment, before deciding on this type of heating.

Reducing exposure to Air Pollution

Outdoor (Ambient) Exposure

Walking is a great way to help reduce emissions, but it can expose you to more pollution. If you are walking through a city, it may be better to walk along quieter streets rather than main roads, if it's safe. Levels of pollutants such as nitrogen oxides are highest close to the kerb of busy roads and decrease sharply with distance from the roadside.

The KentAir website hosts a range of tools to help you be aware of the pollution levels in your area. Sign up for forecast alert emails and regularly check the website for latest measured levels.

Indoor Exposure

The following advice is based on information in the Defra Clean Air Strategy 2019. 

  • Ensure your home is adequately ventilated.
  • If a product has a strong smell, there is a good chance it contains NMVOCs.
  • The same applies to new carpets, furniture, upholstery or other household items - if they have a strong smell, they are possibly releasing NMVOCs and it's important to ventilate your home well. 
  • Ensure combustion appliances are serviced regularly, appropriately ventilated, and get a carbon monoxide detector.