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Saharan Dust Could Make COVID-19 Even Worse

The sunset over Canyon Lake in the Texas Hill Country.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Dust blowing in from the Sahara desert can bring beautiful sunsets, but it can also exacerbate respiratory ailments and could contribute to the spread of the coronavirus.

Dust that has traveled across the ocean from the Sahara desert arrived in Austin this week. It’s an annual phenomenon that makes for hazy skies and beautiful sunsets. But this year it could also increase the spread and the deadliness of COVID-19.

Dr. Elizabeth Matsui, a pediatric allergist and epidemiologist at UT's Dell Medical School, stresses that it's just a hypothesis, but the idea is grounded in other research about air pollution and the disease.

That research shows that the higher the air pollution is in an area, the higher the risks of getting the coronavirus and of dying from it.

Some scientists believe the risks are increased not only because air pollution weakens respiratory health, but also because air pollution particles may help transport the virus

Saharan dust is a fine particulate matter like much air pollution.

“If you live in an area where potentially you're getting more inflammation in your lungs from the Saharan dust, then you're also exposed to COVID, it may set you up to be more susceptible to either getting the infection or for having more severe consequences of getting the infection,” Matsui said.

Saharan dust is also known to exacerbate other respiratory diseases like asthma, so it could similarly worsen the symptoms of COVID-19.

“It makes sense that it would,” she said, “but there is another side of that coin, too.”

That other side? The dust may also cause people to develop COVID-19-like symptoms, like sore throat and coughing, even if they don’t have the disease.

If you’re having symptoms, Matsui said, try to get tested; it’s the only way to know for sure.

Got a tip? Email Mose Buchele at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele

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Mose Buchele focuses on energy and environmental reporting at KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @mosebuchele.
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