Background: Asthma prevalence and severity have markedly increased with urbanisation, and children in low-income urban centres have among the greatest asthma morbidity. Outdoor air pollution has been associated with adverse respiratory effects in children with asthma. However, the mechanisms by which air pollution exposure exacerbates asthma, and how these mechanisms compare with exacerbations induced by respiratory viruses, are poorly understood. We aimed to investigate the associations between regional air pollutant concentrations, respiratory illnesses, lung function, and upper airway transcriptional signatures in children with asthma, with particular focus on asthma exacerbations occurring in the absence of respiratory virus. Methods: We performed a retrospective analysis of data from the MUPPITS1 cohort and validated our findings in the ICATA cohort. The MUPPITS1 cohort recruited 208 children aged 6–17 years living in urban areas across nine US cities with exacerbation-prone asthma between Oct 7, 2015, and Oct 18, 2016, and monitored them during reported respiratory illnesses. The last MUPPITS1 study visit occurred on Jan 6, 2017. The ICATA cohort recruited 419 participants aged 6–20 years with persistent allergic asthma living in urban sites across eight US cities between Oct 23, 2006, and March 25, 2008, and the last study visit occurred on Dec 30, 2009. We included participants from the MUPPITS1 cohort who reported a respiratory illness at some point during the follow-up and participants from the ICATA cohort who had nasal samples collected during respiratory illness or at a scheduled visit. We used air quality index values and air pollutant concentrations for PM2·5, PM10, O3, NO2, SO2, CO, and Pb from the US Environmental Protection Agency spanning the years of both cohorts, and matched values and concentrations to each illness for each participant. We investigated the associations between regional air pollutant concentrations and respiratory illnesses and asthma exacerbations, pulmonary function, and upper airway transcriptional signatures by use of a combination of generalised additive models, case crossover analyses, and generalised linear mixed-effects models. Findings: Of the 208 participants from the MUPPITS1 cohort and 419 participants from the ICATA cohort, 168 participants in the MUPPITS1 cohort (98 male participants and 70 female participants) and 189 participants in the ICATA cohort (115 male participants and 74 female participants) were included in our analysis. We identified that increased air quality index values, driven predominantly by increased PM2·5 and O3 concentrations, were significantly associated with asthma exacerbations and decreases in pulmonary function that occurred in the absence of a provoking viral infection. Moreover, individual pollutants were significantly associated with altered gene expression in coordinated inflammatory pathways, including PM2·5 with increased epithelial induction of tissue kallikreins, mucus hypersecretion, and barrier functions and O3 with increased type-2 inflammation. Interpretation: Our findings suggest that air pollution is an important independent risk factor for asthma exacerbations in children living in urban areas and is potentially linked to exacerbations through specific inflammatory pathways in the airway. Further investigation of these potential mechanistic pathways could inform asthma prevention and management approaches. Funding: National Institutes of Health, National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.