Previous studies have shown that ambient air pollution is associated with respiratory morbidity. However, the effects of air pollutants on health have rarely been studied in China. Our study aimed to estimate the short-term effects of particulate air pollutants on hospitalizations for three types of respiratory disease: pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and asthma. We collected data on daily admissions for patients with each disease from the New Rural Cooperative Medical System (NRCMS) in Hefei, China. Daily records of air pollutants and meteorological data from January 2014 to March 2016 were also obtained. Distributed lag nonlinear models were employed in the analysis to evaluate the association between daily air pollutants and admissions. The highest effect of each pollutant on COPD hospital admission was observed with PM2.5 at lag 12 (RR = 1.068, 95% CI 1.017 to 1.121) and PM10 at lag 10 (RR = 1.031, 95% CI 1.002 to 1.060), for an increase of 10 μg/m3 in concentrations of the pollutants. The short-term effects of PM10 on asthma hospital admissions peaked at lag 12 (RR = 1.057, 95% CI 1.010 to 1.107). According to our stratified analysis, we found that the effects on COPD admission were more pronounced in the warm season than in the cold season, and the elderly (≥ 65 years) and females were more vulnerable to air pollution.