17 December 2018

Could traffic (and your car) exacerbate your allergies?

Is daily commuting in bumper-to-bumper traffic part of your routine? It might not be doing your hay fever any favours.

Traffic can be excruciating – going nowhere slowly, road rage, hours in your car... Unfortunately, commuting on some of our country's busiest roads is a reality for many South African office workers.

Studies have shown that traffic and noise pollution can be bad for your hearing. Road rage affects your blood pressure and makes you generally miserable, but did you know that your daily commute could also be aggravating your respiratory allergies?

A few years ago, a study published in the journal Allergy, Asthma & Immunology Research discussed the effect of traffic-related air pollution on asthma and respiratory allergies in young children. While there is a clear link between the prevalence of asthma and allergies in children living near main roads, they're not the only ones affected by traffic-related air pollution – grown-ups buckling up every day are just as susceptible.

A new study has found that not only fuel emissions have an effect on allergies – seeds of the ragweed plant can also spread in areas where there is heavy traffic.

The study, published in the Journal of Applied Ecology, determined that invasive species prone to causing allergies can be spread as far as 70m by air currents caused by traffic, causing the seeds to sprout further afield and making the pollen more prevalent.

The situation in South Africa

The above study was conducted in Germany, but with the strong winds and dry conditions in South Africa, it’s almost a given that the same thing happens here, given the large quantities of pollen from a number of trees and plants that are known to cause allergic reactions. 

This, combined with the effects of urban air pollution, can spell misery for those who suffer from seasonal allergies.

Protect yourself

Unfortunately, many people have no choice but to commute during peak hours. Here are some tips on what you can do to alleviate the effects of air pollution:

  • If your job allows flexi-time or remote working, discuss a different time slot or working from home with your employer.
  • When you start your car, open the windows to let fresh air circulate through the interior of the vehicle.
  • Vacuum the interior of your car regularly as dander and dust can cling to dashboards, carpeting and upholstery.
  • Make your car a smoke-free zone, even if the traffic is stressing you out! Cigarette smoke in enclosed spaces can worsen seasonal allergies.
  • Drive with the windows closed – this is not just to protect yourself against air pollution and pollen outside – it’s also an important safety measure.
  • Do regular maintenance on your air-conditioning system and vents as these can bring in and circulate dust and dander from outside.
  • If you live near a busy road, avoid exercising outdoors during peak traffic hours to avoid inhaling the air pollution from cars.
  • The overall condition of your vehicle can also affect the level of pollutants you're exposed to – regularly check the rubber seals on car doors.
  • Don't give mould spores a chance to gain a foothold in your car – keep it free of empty bottles or drink containers, damp clothes and other things that can harbour mould.
  • Give the exterior of your car a regular wash to reduce pollen buildup, especially if you park under trees.
  • Keep non-drowsy allergy medication on hand in case of a flare-up. 

Image credit: iStock 


Ask the Expert

Allergy expert

Dr Morris is the Principal Allergist at the Cape Town and Johannesburg Allergy Clinics with postgraduate diplomas in Allergology, Dermatology, Paediatrics and Family Medicine dealing with both adult and childhood allergies.

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