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July 31, 2020

What the Saharan Dust Storm Means for Allergy Sufferers 

In late June of 2020, a dust plume originating in the Sahara Desert traveled 5000 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 is actually a regular weather phenomenon.1 In true 2020 form, however, it was more extreme than usual.

The 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 This year it was much bigger than usual and held together all the way across the Atlantic rather than tapering off, turning sunsets surreal and skies sepia everywhere from Miami and New Orleans to the mid-Atlantic.2,3

Although these “dust storms” can impact air quality and trigger breathing troubles for people with respiratory conditions like asthma, the name is misleading—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 is 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 vs. 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: 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 like 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 exposure to house dust mites 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. Read this article by our resident allergist, Dr. Lakiea Wright, for advice on reducing dust mite exposure in the home.

All of these statements are referenced on the Allergy Insider dust mite allergy page linked in this paragraph. 

Dust storms pose their own 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 ones in the southwest are called “haboobs,” after the middle-eastern sand storm phenomenon,4 and can be responsible for outbreaks of Valley Fever, an infection caused by inhaling fungal spores carried in the desert soil.5,6 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 take measures to protect your health accordingly.  Blog-End-Cap.png

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 history, it can help your provider give you a clearer picture of your allergic sensitizations.



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.