Over the last few weeks, there has been a lot of information on television and the Internet about poor air quality due to dust blowing into Texas from the Sahara Desert in Africa. I thought that it might be helpful for many people if I discuss our air quality and how it effects breathing from the tip of our nose to the bottom of our lungs.
I have written in the past about allergies related to pollen coming from trees, grasses, and weeds, and how Texas is often #1 in the nation in elevated pollen counts certain times of the year. While dust from a desert thousands of miles away does not seem like it would cause much of a problem, it is actually often a severe provoker of respiratory issues.
While doing some research for this article, I found many articles in medical journals regarding the dangers of dust from the Sahara Desert affecting people in European countries such as Spain and Italy. What researchers found was a correlation between dust levels and worsening of sinus problems and asthma.
Interestingly it seems that the dust particles are so small that they do not cause the problems that you would think of from something like a sand storm, where visible dry pieces of dirt or sand are inhaled. Instead, these very fine particles are also mixed with microscopic bits of plant debris, referred to as organic matter.
The real problem comes when this organic matter is exposed to sunlight. Then it combines with oxides of nitrogen, a common byproduct of our populated areas, to form ground level ozone.
Many of us have heard about high ozone levels causing poor air quality days. And in the greater Houston area we frequently have elevation in ground ozone levels in the summer when we have lots of sunshine and high barometric pressure. The addition of the organic material from the Sahara Desert dust makes this ozone problem much worse.
For years, television and radio news has told us about the dangers of ozone to those people who suffer from asthma or other chronic lung conditions. As a nose and throat doctor I can testify that ozone also affects our nasal tissues, sinuses and throat tissues, and for many people can be a trigger of severe upper respiratory illness. It is a toxic irritant and needs to be avoided if at all possible.
Obviously many of us have to go outside and cannot stay away from the dust and ozone. When outdoor exposure is necessary, I strongly recommend the use of nasal saline sprays or washes to clean off the nasal tissues and remove the irritants and pollution. The longer this toxic chemicals staying in contact with our bodies, the worse the reaction. Plain salt water is fine but I often recommend the addition of a moisturizing agent which is found in the sugar xylitol. A simple recipe for a nasal wash solution is 1 cup distilled filtered or purified water with 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon baking soda and 1/2 teaspoon xylitol. There is one commercially prepared product, called Xlear spray that is available at many pharmacies or health food stores that is very easy to use and requires no mixing.
As our climate continues to change, the predictions are for more Sahara Desert dust reaching the United States. Hopefully with avoidance, or washing it out of our bodies, Sahara Desert dust will not get a chance to make too many of us sick.