a man standing in the desert with a storm coming on the horizon

What is Saharan Dust, and How Can it Affect Asthma?

I am a strong believer in "learning something new every day"; and I had never heard of Saharan dust until recently. A community member on our Facebook page shared that Saharan dust that had blown over the Caribbean Islands was a major trigger for her asthma. Saharan Dust affects millions of people each year, especially those with asthma and allergies, so I decided it was an important thing to research and write about to share with the community.

What is Saharan dust?

As the name suggests, Saharan dust comes from the Sahara Desert in North Africa. Annually, hundreds of millions of tons of dust are carried by the wind from the Sahara Desert and blown across the Atlantic Ocean.1 The dust reaches all the way to the Caribbean Islands, Gulf of Mexico, and even the southern United States.2 In the United States, Texas is typically the main state that is affected; although Lousiana, Alabama, Florida, and other southern states can experience it.3 If the wind blows north, the dust from the Sahara can be blown to Europe.4

Saharan dust is seasonal and occurs typically through late spring to early fall. It is considered to be heavy about every 3 years and makes its way all the way up to Dallas about every 5 years.2 It looks like a layer of hazy air pollution or smog. It can even cause the air to turn yellow, and significantly decrease visibility. Those living in the southern United States report experiencing vivid red sunsets when Saharan dust is in the air.3

How does Saharan dust affect asthma?

The dust is composed of mineral particles and sand, and dust is a common trigger for people with asthma. Air that contains these particles can cause wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and an asthma attack.4

If dust from cleaning or moving things around is already an issue for you, imagine stepping outside into thick hazy air that is saturated with dust! The dust can trigger allergy symptoms like a runny nose, scratchy throat, post-nasal drip, sneezing, and sometimes congestion.5

Managing your exposure

On days where the dust layer is especially bad, it may be wise to stay indoors as much as possible. Walking or working out outdoors may be difficult if you have asthma. Check the air quality rating to prepare before going outside. There are also sites like NASA and NOAA that can help you track the travel of Saharan dust. If you planning a vacation to the Caribbean Islands of anywhere along the Gulf of Mexico, it is a good idea to plan around Saharan dust.2

Dr. Ty Asha Nichols, a doctor who researches Saharan Dust, shares, "While we cannot stop the dust from coming over, it has been shown that if you can recognize the dust event and give adequate warning, patients can take their medication in anticipation and therefore reduce the number of attacks or severity".2 It is important to be aware of the travel of the dust so you can be prepared with the right asthma medications at home.

Conclusion

Saharan dust is an environmental phenomenon that we as humans have little control over. The best we can do is track its' travel through the world, and be prepared for when it arrives in certain areas. The best you can do is stay indoors on heavy days, and be prepared with your inhaler and other asthma medications. If Saharan dust is an issue for your asthma, discuss what you can do to manage your exposure with your doctor.

Have you experienced Saharan dust where you live? If so, how has it affected your asthma? Share in the comments below!

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