Saharan dust cloud engulfing UK could trigger deadly asthma attacks, experts warn

A SAHARAN dust cloud which has blown across the UK could trigger deadly asthma attacks, experts have warned.

Over the past few days, Brits have woken to blazing red sunrises or noticed fiery sunsets in the evening as temperatures soared to a balmy 17C.

And while parts of the country have been hotter than Barcelona this week, the milder weather has also brought with it a dust plume from the Sahara.

It might make for a pretty photo to post on social media, but experts say the cloud of dirty air could pose a risk to those with asthma.

People with respiratory problems should stay indoors and be aware that the dust cloud could worsen their symptoms, including shortness of breath and wheezing, according to doctors.

Weather conditions such as dust, air pollution, thunderstorms and plunging temperatures are all known to be triggers for asthma attacks.

What is Saharan dust and how does it get to the UK?

As in other parts of the world, the wind can blow strongly over deserts – whipping up dust and sand high into the sky. If the winds in the upper part of the atmosphere are blowing north, the dust can be carried as far as the UK.

Once it is lifted from the ground by strong winds, clouds of dust can reach very high altitudes and be transported worldwide, covering thousands of miles.

In order for the dust to get from up in the sky down to the ground, you need something to wash it out of the sky – rain.  As raindrops fall, they collect particles of dust on the way down. Then when the raindrops land on something and eventually evaporate, they leave behind a layer of dust.

Saharan dust is relatively common in the UK often happening several times a year when big dust storms in the Sahara coincide with southerly wind patterns.  In certain weather situations, Saharan dust can also affect air pollution and pollution levels.

Source: Met Office UK

Speaking previously on Saharan dust clouds, Dr Andy Whittamore, clinical lead at Asthma UK, said: “Saharan dust could pose a serious risk to the 5.4million people in the UK with asthma.

"Dust and other types of air pollution are a well-known trigger for people with asthma.

"Toxic air can leave people struggling for breath and can cause wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath and even a life-threatening asthma attack.

“People with asthma must make sure they carry their reliever inhaler (usually blue) with them at all times in case their symptoms worsen.

"We also advise people with asthma to continue to manage their condition with their preventer inhaler (usually brown) as this will help to reduce the inflammation in their airways and make them less likely to react to asthma triggers. "

According to Asthma UK, just under two thirds of people with the condition report that poor air quality makes their symptoms worse.

The Saharan dust plume began sweeping in across the south and east of the country over the weekend and continued to linger in the air this week.

Speaking on Saturday, Mark Parrington, Senior Scientist at the Copernicus Atmosphere Monitoring Service said: “We monitored similar events in the past weeks with significant air quality impacts in the affected regions, which were confirmed by surface measurements from the countries gathered by the European Environment Agency.

"We expect this will also be the case for the upcoming event, although it is not yet certain to what extent the plume will be visible to the naked eye.

"Dust plumes from the desert can cause red skies, limited visibility or stains on cars and windows from dust deposition, but these impacts are difficult to predict quantitatively as far as 4 or 5 days in advance.”

But pictures over recent days have shown bright red skies and social media users have even noted red dust on their cars.

Explaining the phenomenon, Good Morning Britain's meteorologist Laura Tobin said today: "The reason we've been having these beautiful sunrises and sunsets in the morning and the evening is the sunlight needs to travel through a longer layer of atmosphere, meaning it's more likely to scatter in the longer red wavelength.

"But when we have the Saharan dust we have right now in the upper atmosphere, it scatters the light more meaning we have these beautiful pinks, reds and oranges outside.

What is asthma?

Asthma affects people of all ages and often starts in childhood, although it can also appear for the first time in adults.

It is caused by inflammation of the breathing tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs.

This inflammation makes the breathing tubes highly sensitive, so they temporarily become narrow.

This may occur randomly, or after exposure to a trigger like dust, pollen, smoke and even exercise.


The main symptoms include

  • wheezing
  • breathlessness
  • a tight chest
  • coughing

Symptoms can sometimes get temporarily worse, this is known as an asthma attack.


There is no known cure for asthma but the symptoms can be managed with a number of treatments.

Most asthma treatments are taken using an inhaler, a small device that delivers a spray or powder medicine to your breathing tubes as you breathe in.

The main treatments are:

  • avoiding potential triggers
  • reliever inhalers – inhalers used when needed to quickly relieve asthma symptoms for a short time
  • preventer inhalers – inhalers used every day to reduce the inflammation in the breathing tubes

Source: NHS Choices

"For the moment, we've got this jet stream across the UK, it's moving the Sahara sand across our shores.

"The positives is the sunrise and sunsets, the downside is the sand on the cars."

The un-seasonal weather may also cause a spot of bother for hayfever sufferers as the above average temperatures could trigger an increase in pollen levels.

This can also be a trigger for those with asthma.

The National Pollen Monitoring Network based at the University of Worcester forecasts fungal spores will be moderate to high this week.

Dr Beverley Adams-Groom, chief pollen forecaster, at the NPMN, said: "At this time of year, we usually see hazel and alder tree pollen coming into peak season.

"The pollen is released during mild weather in dry and breezy conditions like those we are experiencing at the moment and which will continue over the coming week.

"The minority of hay fever sufferers who are affected by these pollen types are likely to be affected.

"The main tree pollen season will start in late March or early April with silver birch pollen and then oak pollen from mid-April.

"They finish by mid-late May and about 20-35% of hay fever sufferers are affected by these types." 

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