What the Saharan Dust Storm Means for Allergy Sufferers

July 31, 2020

In late June of 2020, a dust plume originating in the Sahara Desert traveled 5,000 miles across the Atlantic ocean, all the way to the continental United States. Variably referred to as a “dust storm,” a “dust cloud,” and “Godzilla," the headline-making plume was actually an example of a regular weather phenomenon.In true 2020 form, however, this one was more extreme than usual. 

This type of plume usually reaches the Gulf Coast of the United States, the Caribbean, and South America, where it deposits nutrients for plant life in the Amazon rainforest.1 In 2020, however, it was much bigger than usual and held together all the way across the Atlantic rather than tapering off. As a result, it created surreal sunsets and sepia skies everywhere from Miami and New Orleans to the mid-Atlantic.2,3

Although dust storms can impact air quality and trigger breathing troubles for people with respiratory conditions such as asthma, the name is misleading, as the plume is not actually made of dust in the way we think of the household dust that commonly triggers allergies. The “dust” in this case comprises particles of silicia, iron, and phosphorous that originate in an ancient dry lake bed at the border of the Sahara and Sahel deserts in Chad.2

Dust Mite Allergies Versus Dust Storms

When you think of being allergic to dust, the phrase may conjure everything that looks and feels like dust, from the grey gunk coating your bookshelves to hazy clouds of mineral particles blown by trans-Atlantic winds. The important takeaway for allergy sufferers is that a true dust allergy is, more accurately, a dust mite allergy.

This is disgusting, so we apologize in advance. But dust mites are microscopically tiny bugs that live in house dust, feed on dead skin flakes, and can become airborne. They especially concentrate on soft materials such as upholstered furniture, mattresses, pillows, and bedding, and thrive in humid conditions. Exposure to house dust mites may be a risk factor in the development of asthma and may trigger asthma exacerbations.

Dust mites are one of the most common indoor allergens, and they require constant vigilance for the allergy sufferer to mitigate. (Check out "How to Deal with Allergies" by allergist Dr. Lakiea Wright, which offers advice for managing environmental allergens such as dust mites.)

Dust Storm Dangers

Despite the media focus on the Saharan dust plume, dust storms, sand storms, and other such similar weather patterns happen regionally across the globe throughout the year, including in parts of the United States. Common storms like this in the Southwest are called “haboobs,” after the Middle Eastern sand storm phenomenon, and they can be responsible for outbreaks of Valley Fever, an infection caused by inhaling fungal spores carried in the desert soil.4-6 Toxic dust full of both naturally occurring and human-supplemented arsenic is another issue plaguing the southwestern United States.7

There are many threats to respiratory health out there, but it’s important to distinguish dust storms from dust mite allergies and to take measures to protect your health accordingly.  


If you suspect you have a dust mite allergy but aren't certain, talk to your healthcare provider about getting a specific IgE blood test. Along with your symptom history, it can help your provider give you a clearer picture of your allergic sensitizations.

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  1. NASA. NASA Satellite Reveals How Much Saharan Dust Feeds Amazon’s Plants. https://www.nasa.gov/content/goddard/nasa-satellite-reveals-how-much-saharan-dust-feeds-amazon-s-plants. February 2015.
  2. Vox. The “Godzilla” Saharan dust cloud over the US, explained. https://www.vox.com/2020/7/1/21307053/sahara-dust-storm-2020-godzilla-cloud-saharan-sunset. July 2020.
  3. OBX Today. https://www.obxtoday.com/top-stories/saharan-dust-plume-reaches-eastern-north-carolina-air-quality-alert-in-effect/. June 2020.
  4. Azcentral. https://www.azcentral.com/story/news/local/arizona-weather/2018/07/10/haboob-definition-meaning-name-dust-storm-wind-monsoon/770406002/. July 2018.
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/coccidioidomycosis/index.html. Retrieved July 2020.
  6. PBS. Why more dust storms and Valley fever are blanketing the southwest. https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/dust-storms-valley-fever-blanketing-southwest. June 2017.
  7. Scientific American. How Global Warming is Spreading Toxic Dust. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-global-warming-is-spreading-toxic-dust/. July 2013.