What is a dust storm?
A dust storm can reduce the quality of the air. While we should all take precautions in a dust storm, some people — such as those who have respiratory (breathing) conditions — may need to take special care.
Dust storms occur when strong, hot, dry winds blow dust and soil into the air and move it across the country, often for many kilometres. These storms are more likely to occur in the summer and after a period of drought, when the land is warmer and the soil is more exposed.
Bacteria and spores or fungi can also be picked up during a dust storm.
Because Australia has large areas of dry, sun-baked land, dust storms are more common here than in cooler countries that have more rainfall.
How can dust storms affect a person's health?
Health problems can develop if someone breathes in the dust from a dust storm. The effects will depend on how large the dust particles are.
Larger particles can irritate the eyes and upper airways (the nose, sinuses behind the nose, and the trachea, or windpipe). In most people, these particles do not cause health problems because they are too coarse to move down further into the lower airways.
Smaller dust particles, however, can get deep into the lungs and cause irritation and inflammation. This can cause problems with breathing, especially if you already have a health issue with your lungs.
For some people, breathing in the dust from a dust storm can cause an asthma attack or other breathing problem. Breathing dust for a long time can lead to long-term breathing, heart or lung problems.
Who is at risk?
Those most at risk of health problems because of a dust storm are:
- babies and children
- elderly people
- people who have breathing disorders such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema)
- people with a cardiovascular (heart-related) condition
- people with diabetes
Depending on the health condition involved, breathing in dust from a dust storm could trigger an asthma attack, allergic reaction, make it difficult to breathe or even cause a heart-related problem.
The longer you are exposed to the dust, the more chance that it could have an effect on you.
What are the warning signs of difficulty breathing?
If you have asthma or another chronic respiratory condition and you experience chest tightness, wheezing, coughing or shortness of breath, you should follow your prescribed action or treatment plan. If the symptoms don't get better, you should see your doctor.
You should also see your doctor if you have any concerns or experience breathing problems or other worsening symptoms from a pre-existing heart or other chronic condition.
What precautions can be taken during a dust storm?
- Stay indoors as much as possible, particularly if you are at risk of health problems.
- Close the windows, doors and vents.
- If possible, stay in an air-conditioned room.
- If you have to go outside, wear a mask over your mouth and nose to prevent you from breathing in dust. A P2 or P3 mask, available from a hardware store, should be effective.
- Avoid exercise, particularly if outdoors.
- If it is safe to do so, check on elderly neighbours or other vulnerable people.
If you have asthma, try to stay indoors with windows, doors and air vents closed. Take your preventer medication and avoid exercising outdoors. If you have one, stick to your asthma or other action plan or treatment plan
If you are caught in a dust storm while driving, turn on the 'recirculation' air intake to minimise the amount of dust entering your car. If you can't see ahead of you clearly, slow down. Be prepared to pull over and stop if visibility is very low.
Further help and information
- If you have a medical emergency, call triple zero (000) and ask for an ambulance.
- To discuss how to manage your health in a dust storm, call healthdirect on 1800 022 222 to speak to a registered nurse (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria).
For further information about weather conditions, visit the Australian Bureau of Meteorology website at www.bom.gov.au.
Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.
Last reviewed: March 2021