The Saharan Dust Plume May Irritate Your Allergy Symptoms, Experts Say

NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captures the Saharan dust plume movement
NASA-NOAA’s Suomi NPP satellite captures the Saharan dust plume movement.

 NASA Worldview

Key Takeaways

  • The Saharan dust plume will bring dry, dusty desert air to parts of the Southeastern U.S. this week.
  • It may make allergy symptoms worse.
  • You can take steps to lessen your symptoms.

A massive cloud of dust will slowly make its way to the United States this week. Dubbed the Saharan dust plume, this thick layer of atmospheric dust s blowing from the Sahara Desert and being transported west by the wind. It’s expected to hit the southeastern portion of the U.S. by Wednesday, June 24.

While the Saharan dust plume may bring stunning sunsets and sunrises along with all that dust, it can also mean trouble for people with allergies and underlying respiratory issues.

What This Means For You

The Saharan dust plume has the potential to aggravate symptoms in people who struggle with allergies. Take extra precautions if you are an allergy sufferer to stay comfortable if the plume is expected to move through your area.

What Is the Saharan Dust Plume?

While the Saharan dust plume is getting a lot of attention, it’s not a new phenomenon. The Saharan dust plume, aka Sahara Air Layer (SAL), is a mass of very dry, dusty air that forms over the Sahara Desert during the late spring, summer, and early fall, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). The plume moves over the North Atlantic every three to five days, and it usually occupies a stretch of atmosphere up to 2.5 miles thick, with the base starting about a mile above the ground.

The Saharan dust plume usually becomes heavier in mid-June, peaks in late June to mid-August, and peters out toward the end of the summer, NOAA says. But, during its peak period, the Saharan dust plume can cover massive areas of land.

The Saharan dust plume can weaken a tropical cyclone and suppress the formation of clouds, leading to higher temperatures. 

While the Saharan dust plume happens every year, this year’s plume is getting attention because of how large and thick it is. According to NASA satellite imagery, the dust cloud has spread over 2,000 miles across the Atlantic Ocean.

Photos of the cloud’s impact on the Caribbean are also getting attention on social media:

What Part of the U.S. Will Be Affected?

As of now, the National Weather Service has predicted that the Saharan dust plume will move over the southeastern portion of the U.S. this week, starting on Wednesday.

The Weather Channel says that dust plumes like this tend to become less concentrated as they move west.

How Can the Saharan Dust Plume Impact Your Respiratory System?

The Saharan dust plume can be difficult for anyone to breathe in, Raymond Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, CA, tells Verywell. “If the air descends, it will be difficult for the respiratory tract,” he says. “It is very dry air and, the drier the air, the harder it is to breathe.”

The plume can be especially difficult for people with allergies. “People with allergies should be aware that dust particles may be more prevalent in the coming days with accumulation increasing both indoors and outdoors,” Irum Noor, DO, an allergist/immunologist at ENT Allergy Associates, tells Verywell.

The dry, dusty air can serve a “trigger” for an increase in allergy symptoms, says Purvi Parikh, MD, an allergist and immunologist with the Allergy & Asthma Network, and a clinical assistant professor of medicine at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine. If you struggle with allergies, you may experience the following symptoms if the Saharan dust plume comes to your area:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Raspy voice
  • Coughing
  • Itchy, watery eyes
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal congestion

What You Can Do to Stay Safe

Experts say it’s important not to panic. There are a number of things you can do to protect your airways.

  • Take your allergy medication as prescribed. If you’ve been given a prescription for allergy medication, Parikh recommends following your doctor's orders especially carefully.
  • Track air quality alerts. “Stay indoors on days when air quality is bad,” Parikh says. 
  • Close your windows and doors. Dust from the Saharan dust cloud can work its way indoors where it can aggravate your allergy symptoms.
  • Try to stay indoors as much as possible. If you struggle with severe allergies, Casciari suggests trying to limit your time outside.
  • Cover your face outside. A face mask can help protect you from COVID-19 and particles from the Saharan dust plume. Noor recommends wearing sunglasses as well to protect your eyes.
  • Wash your sheets regularly. Despite your best efforts, some dust from the Saharan dust plume may find its way into your home. Your bed can accumulate that dust and expose you to the particles while you sleep. That’s why Noor recommends washing the linens on your bed in hot water on a regular basis.
  • Use eye drops. Over-the-counter lubricating eye drops can help clear dust particles out of your eyes and soothe irritation.
  • Don’t exercise outdoors. According to Casciari, exercising vigorously outdoors increases the amount of air you inhale, which can make your symptoms worse.
  • Try to breathe through your nose. The air from the Saharan dust plume is dry, which can irritate your respiratory tract. Casciari recommends trying to breathe more through your nose, which helps humidify air before it reaches your lungs.

While the Saharan dust plume can aggravate allergy symptoms, its effects won’t last long. “It’s a temporary situation,” Casciari says.

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Article Sources
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  1. The Saharan Air Layer. NOAA's Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory.

  2. Dolce C, Erdman J. Massive Saharan Dust Plume Now in the Caribbean Sea to Complete 5,000-Mile Journey From Africa to U.S. This Week. The Weather Channel. June 23, 2020.