Exposure to tiny particles in polluted air may lead to neurological problems, including peripheral neuropathy. You can take steps to avoid poor air quality outdoors and indoors.

Almost everyone around the world breathes air that contains many pollutants, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). These pollutants include biological, chemical, and physical agents that lower air quality.

While air pollution is a well-known cause of lung and cardiovascular issues, it may also lead to neurological problems. We know more about the effects of air pollution on the central nervous system but are now learning that it may also contribute to peripheral neuropathy, which is damage to the nerves outside your brain and spinal cord.

Studies have found a possible connection between neurological problems and certain air pollutants, especially fine particulate matter (PM). Toxins like arsenic, lead, and methylmercury in fine dust are major causes of neurological and other diseases.

Neurological conditions with a link to air pollution include:

Ongoing exposure to fine dust when someone is pregnant may affect brain development in the fetus, which could eventually result in neurological disease or brain damage.

In addition, infants and children exposed to high amounts of fine dust may develop neurodegenerative diseases as they grow older.

Airborne dust is also a risk factor for bacterial diseases such as meningitis, an infection affecting the brain and spinal cord that may lead to brain damage or death.

Peripheral neuropathy

While there is much research on air pollution’s effect on the central nervous system, there’s less evidence regarding its effect on the peripheral nervous system (PNS).

But a recent 2022 British study did establish a link between long-term exposure to air pollution and a higher risk of peripheral neuropathy.

Diabetic neuropathy

Peripheral neuropathy is a common complication of diabetes. A 2020 German study found that long-term air pollution could increase the risk of distal sensorimotor polyneuropathy (the most common type of diabetic neuropathy) in people with diabetes and obesity.

Studies have identified specific air pollutants that contribute to neurological problems. These include:

Fine dust

Fine dust is PM equal to or less than 2.5 microns in diameter (PM2.5). These particles can be found in smoke from fires and in emissions from vehicles, factories, and power plants.

When you breathe, these tiny particles enter your lungs and then infiltrate your blood vessels, spreading throughout your body. Your brain can directly absorb these particles through the mucous in your nostrils.

People at higher risk from exposure to PM2.5 include:

Nitrogen oxides

Nitrogen oxides are highly reactive gases in the atmosphere. They react with other compounds in the air to form PM and ozone.

Exposure to nitrogen oxides primarily affects your respiratory system but can also cause neurological problems. Studies have linked nitrogen oxides to several neurodegenerative diseases.


Also known primarily as a lung irritant, ozone can also affect your nervous system. A 2021 study found that high ozone levels contributed to increased PNS symptoms.

In addition to exposure to poor air quality, some of the following conditions may trigger neuropathy:

Neuropathy may also be due to genetics.

Exposure to high levels of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane may worsen the following neuropathy symptoms:

  • dizziness
  • numbness in your hands or feet
  • sweating

Symptoms of peripheral neuropathy

The symptoms of peripheral neuropathy may vary based on the type of nerves it affects — sensory, motor, or autonomic. Peripheral neuropathy may affect all three nerve types or just one or two types.

Sensory neuropathy symptoms may include:

Motor neuropathy symptoms may include:

If peripheral neuropathy affects your autonomic nerves, which control your heart rate, blood pressure, digestion, and other functions, you may experience:

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You can help protect yourself from indoor and outdoor pollution by taking the following steps.

At home

To stay safe from poor air quality in your home, you can try the following:


While it may be challenging to stay safe from outdoor air pollution, doing the following may help:

  • When the air quality is poor, spend less time outdoors and avoid prolonged outdoor physical activity. You can check the Air Quality Index (AQI) in your area at AirNow.gov.
  • If you must be outdoors when the air quality is poor, wear an N95 face mask rather than a cloth or paper mask.
  • Avoid physical activities like walking or cycling on streets with heavy traffic.
  • Set your car’s ventilation system to recirculate air when you’re driving on busy roadways.

Health issues linked to poor air quality

Exposure to air pollution may inflame human cells, leading to chronic diseases. Since 2013, outdoor air pollution has been classified as a carcinogen by the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer.

Along with neuropathy, the following health conditions have links to air pollution:

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Along with lung and cardiovascular issues, exposure to air pollution may also lead to neurological problems such as neuropathy.

When the air quality is poor, you can protect yourself by taking steps such as spending less time outdoors and using an air purifier indoors.