Nearly 40% of SA’s children suffer from allergies exacerbated by poor air quality and urban living

Children suffer from allergies exacerbated by poor air quality and urban living. Picture: Cottobro studios /Pexels

Children suffer from allergies exacerbated by poor air quality and urban living. Picture: Cottobro studios /Pexels

Published Jun 28, 2024


Over one-third of all South Africans will deal with an allergic disease at some point in their lives.

What's more concerning is that 40% of those dealing with allergies are children, even though they only make up only 34% of the South African population.

These were some of findings at World Allergy Week which ran from June 23 to June 29.

This year, The Allergy Foundation of South Africa put the spotlight on food allergies to educate people about this increasingly common and often dangerous condition.

Common allergic conditions which include:

– Allergic rhinitis: Often called hay fever or sinus allergies.

– Allergic asthma: Asthma triggered by allergens.

– Food allergies: Reactions to certain foods.

– Eczema: An allergic reaction affecting the skin.

According to existing research, allergies tend to be more common in wealthier countries and among richer individuals within any country. The reasons for this are not fully understood, but there are two main theories:

– Environmental exposure: Wealthier people might be exposed to more allergy-promoting factors, such as junk food and sugary drinks.

– Lack of protective factors: Wealthier individuals may not be as exposed to protective environmental elements, like beneficial germs in rural areas.

Trevor Brewer, the director of air treatment specialist at air treatment and lifestyle products company Solenco, pointed out that rising allergy rates are not just due to better awareness and diagnosis.

"The global number of allergic diseases is increasing, especially among children and this is driven largely by environmental factors," he said.

Brewer also highlighted the significant effect of poor air quality on allergic diseases in children.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a growing demand for household air treatment solutions. Picture: cottonbro studio/Pexels

These are some of the major air quality-related allergic diseases that impact children:

Asthma and allergic rhinitis

A growing number of children in South Africa are suffering from asthma and allergic rhinitis, particularly in urban areas. Asthma impacts nearly one in five kids, while 30% to 40% require medication for allergic rhinitis.

Common triggers for these allergies include dust, pollen and mould, all of which are becoming more problematic due to climate change.

The air quality expert explained that higher greenhouse gas levels are leading to earlier and more intense pollen seasons.

He added that global warming is causing the air to hold more moisture, which promotes the growth of mould spores in wet and humid conditions.

Food allergies

The South African Allergy Foundation stressed that food allergies are on the rise worldwide and in some regions, 8-10% of young children have food allergies.

In South Africa, about 2.5% of children aged 1 to 3 years suffer from the condition. Over the past 20 years, the prevalence of food allergies increased significantly, jumping from 3.5% to 11.1% between 1999 and 2019. This increase is closely linked to industrialisation and urbanisation.

While genetic factors do contribute to food allergies, environmental influences are becoming more evident.

Research indicates that pollutants can change how our immune system works, leading to immuno-toxicity. This process can either trigger new food allergies or worsen existing ones.


A recent study by the University of Pretoria has found that air pollution is linked to atopic eczema in preschool children in South Africa. This is a chronic skin condition that causes dry, itchy and inflamed skin.

The study revealed that children who spend more time indoors and who are exposed to pollutants like gas, open fires used for heating and cooking as well as tobacco smoke, have higher rates of this condition.

Traffic-related air pollution is also a major factor. The study estimates that transportation is responsible for 90% of harmful emissions in South Africa.

However, Brewer, one of the researchers, points out that these pollutants are not limited to the outdoors.

"Invisible fine particulate matter and inhalable pollutants from outdoor sources can easily get indoors," he explained.

He also argues that while reducing outdoor emissions is challenging, improving indoor air quality is achievable.

He advised South African parents to take steps to protect their children from poor air quality.

Since the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been a growing demand for household air treatment solutions. Now, the focus is on improving indoor air quality to prevent and manage allergic diseases that affect children's quality of life, Brewer said.

Parents are encouraged to invest in air treatment solutions to help combat the impact of air pollution on their children's health.

His best advice to those investing in an air purifier or dehumidifier for their home is to look for a product with an H13 HEPA filter, which forces air through an ultra-fine mesh to trap airborne pollutants and allergens that are too small to see.