Caribbean Sahara Dust

This satellite photo provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, shows a could of dust coming from the Sahara desert arriving to the Caribbean Monday, June 22, 2020. The massive cloud of dust is blanketing the Caribbean as it heads to the U.S. with a size and concentration level that meteorologists say hasn't been seen in roughly half a century.

RALEIGH — A cloud of dust is on its way to North Carolina this weekend, and some residents may want to take precautions, a lung expert says.

That's because people with underlying conditions could experience coughing or trouble breathing, according to Dr. Matthew Bruehl, pediatric pulmonologist at WakeMed in Raleigh.

The giant plume, called the Saharan Air Layer, is expected to blanket North Carolina by Saturday and leave by Tuesday, according to a NASA animation and ABC11, The News & Observer's media partner.

The cloud formed in Africa before making its way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration. The plume is expected to bring hazy skies and intense sunrises and sunsets, McClatchy News reported.

Who could be most affected?

But it's also possible for tiny dust particles, such as those from the plume, to go deep into the body's respiratory system, Bruehl said in a phone interview on Thursday.

He said the particles could lead to "irritation in the nose, mouth, eyes" as well as "coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath." Occasionally, people can get deposits of bacteria and other organisms that travel with the dust, according to Bruehl.

Anyone with serious trouble breathing should always seek immediate medical attention, according to the Mayo Clinic.

People most likely to experience health impacts include those with asthma, emphysema, and other chronic conditions that make it difficult to breathe, Bruehl said. Anyone who has recently tested positive for or recovered from COVID-19 could also be at increased risk, according to the lung expert.

Older people and young kids are among the "most sensitive" age groups, while healthy adults may not feel impacts from the dust at all, according to Bruehl.

How can you stay healthy?

During the coronavirus pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has urged people to wear face coverings to help stop the spread of the disease. N95 masks, sometimes used by medical professionals, can filter out particles more effectively than others, Bruehl said.

"What cloth masks and surgical masks are designed to do is prevent droplet spread, so liquids or very small liquid particles in the air," he said. "But those droplets themselves are much bigger than these dust particles, so the finer stuff still gets through."

There's no need to go out and buy a N95 mask though.

Staying in a place with closed windows and doors could help people with underlying conditions avoid the particles, Bruehl said. People without underlying conditions probably won't need to consider remaining indoors, according to the pulmonologist.

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