Sahara Dust Health Impact: How Will Asthma, COVID-19 Sufferers Be Affected?

A vast plume of Saharan dust stretching nearly 5,000 miles from West Africa to the Gulf of Mexico is expected to affect air quality in parts of the United States over the coming days. But what are the potential health impacts of the dust?

Studies have shown that breathing in dust particles can have an adverse impact on health, especially for those with pre-existing conditions. While much of the Saharan dust will remain high above the ground, some may make it closer to the surface, potentially posing health risks for those who inhale the tiny particles.

In healthy people, exposure to Saharan dust, in most cases, will not produce any significant symptoms. However, if there are large particles present in the dust—such as sand particles—then some individuals may experience nose, throat and eye irritation as well as coughing, Dr. Mitchell Grayson, Medical Scientific Council Chairperson, Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, told Newsweek. These symptoms could appear within just a few minutes of exposure.

Much longer exposure to the dust carries other potential risks. For example, the dust can carry pathogens—such as bacteria, viruses and even fungi—that can cause respiratory tract infections.

It is also possible that exposure to the dust could lead to lung fibrosis—a disease where the lung tissue becomes damaged and scarred—due to the presence of silica, although this is much less likely, according to Grayson.

The main health concerns are for those people who have respiratory problems—such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—because the symptoms of these diseases can be exacerbated by the dust.

"The exact mechanisms are not known, but it could be through inflammation in the lungs, which could be due to the particles in the dust," Grayson said.

When it comes to COVID-19, which is a respiratory illness, Grayson said we still don't know whether or not the dust exacerbates the symptoms of this disease specifically due to a lack of data.

"I would presume that anything that could worsen airway symptoms would be problematic for someone with COVID-19; however, as mentioned, there are no data to support this," Grayson said.

The dust plume can also contain particles that exacerbate certain allergies, as well as some cardiovascular diseases, although the mechanisms behind its effect on the latter group of health issues also remains unclear. Furthermore, the impact of the dust could be amplified by summer conditions.

"Summer already comes with a combination of high heat and smog which can lead to bad air quality and trigger asthma symptoms. Inflamed airways are already more sensitive to irritants and harsh temperatures," Kenneth Mendez, President & CEO of the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA,) told Newsweek.

Aside from those with chronic lung diseases, other groups that are particularly vulnerable to the effects of Saharan dust are senior adults and young children. Pregnant women may also be at an increased risk because they are vulnerable to air pollution exposure.

Not surprisingly, the longer you are exposed to the dust, the more likely it is that you will experience health issues as a result. If you are concerned, experts recommend staying inside as much as possible while the dust storm passes through your area, making sure to keep windows and doors shut.

Saharan dust, San Juan, Puerto Rico
A vast cloud of Sahara dust blankets the city of San Juan, Puerto Rico on June 22, 2020. RICARDO ARDUENGO/AFP via Getty Images

If you do need to go outside, use a suitable mask and try to avoid strenuous activity, the experts said. "In this case you want an N95 type mask, not the same as what we recommend for COVID-19," Grayson said.

While you are in your home, there are some basic steps you can take to further protect your environment, according to the AAFA. For example, you can use an HEPA air filter/air purifier that is certified asthma and allergy friendly, which effectively filters out tiny pollutant particles and allergens.

Running your central air conditioning—ensuring that the air handler filter has been changed—may also help, according to Grayson.

Finally, it is probably a good idea to regularly check the air quality in your area. The Environmental Protection Agency uses a color system for air quality known as the Air Quality Index or AQI. Green means that air quality is good, while yellow indicates increased air pollution. Orange, or an AQI of 101 or more, means that air quality could be unhealthy for sensitive groups.

"If you have asthma or allergies you should be careful when air quality is yellow or higher. When the air quality index reaches the orange level people with asthma and allergies can be seriously affected so they might want to ensure they keep taking their asthma medicines as prescribed, decrease activities and avoid working or exercising outside on these days," Mendez said.

In the midst of the pandemic, the arrival of the dust could complicate the health response to the disease. Not only could it potentially exacerbate the symptoms of COVID-19 sufferers, but symptoms resulting from the dust may also be mistaken for those caused by the disease.

Some recent research has suggested that particulate matter in the atmosphere—including dust—could increase COVID-19 death rates, although the evidence is not yet conclusive. For example, one study conducted by a group of Harvard scientists found that people living in areas with high levels of air pollution were more likely to die of the disease than those in areas with better air quality.

This article was updated to include additional comments from Mitchell Grayson.