Can breathing dust make you sick?

A girl cleaning dust below bed

Sometimes breathing dust can make you sick. If it triggers an allergic reaction you might experience symptoms such as sneezing or coughing.

If you inhale some types of dust allergens over months or years it could cause a disease called hypersensitivity pneumonitis. This condition is caused by inhaling dust containing fungal spores. Over time, this can damage long-term lung health if lung tissue becomes scarred.

A more common condition though, is dust mite allergy, from inhaling dust mite allergens. In fact, dust mite allergy is one of the most common allergies in the world.

In this article we’ll answer the question can breathing dust make you sick. We’ll explain the science behind what’s happening to your lungs, list the symptoms you need to watch out for and tell you what else may be causing it. We’ll also look at ways to manage dust allergies, from avoidance strategies to treatment options.

What is the effect of dust on the respiratory system?

The lungs bring air into your body and pass oxygen into the bloodstream. Sometimes air contains potentially irritating particles, such as dust, which when inhaled can cause all sorts of symptoms. To prevent symptoms from developing the body has developed a series of protective mechanisms, including.

  • Lining the nose with mucus: To catch dust and other particles before they reach the lungs.
  • Coating the airways with cilia (hair-like projections): These move mucus up and out of the lungs, clearing debris from them.
  • Producing special proteins and macrophages (a type of immune cell): These help trap and neutralise dust and other particles.

The effect dust has will depend on where it settles. When large particles are caught in the nose, you may sneeze or blow your nose to get rid of them. On occasions where something harmful does make its way into the airways it could cause bronchitis. If dust gets deep into the lungs, it could lead to serious complications, such as a build-up of scar tissue . But this is more likely to happen if symptoms are left untreated for a long period of time.

What is allergic rhinitis?

A man sneezing in blue

Symptoms of dust allergy

As well as the various forms of dust that we’ll come to later, dust allergies can be triggered by house dust mites and cockroaches. Typical symptoms can include:

  • Pollens from trees, grasses or weeds
  • Waste particles from house dust mites
  • Molds
  • Certain foods such as nuts, dairy, shellfish
  • Pet dander
  • Insect stings

If symptoms are caused by dust mites you may also experience post-nasal drip, sinus inflammation and skin conditions, such as eczema.

Read more about the symptoms of dust mite allergy.

Can breathing dust make you sick in the long-term?

Exposure to dust and dust mites can, over time, lead to long-term illness. Uncontrolled dust mite allergy can cause symptoms of allergic rhinitis. This can disrupt your sleep and leave you feeling exhausted during the day. A lack of sleep, if left unresolved, can have a negative impact on your well-being so it’s important you seek help before it develops into a more serious issue.

Which type of dust is causing my sickness?

Dust particles can be organic or inorganic, depending on the source. Both are risk factors for sickness.

Organic dust

Organic dust comes from animals or plants, for example livestock, hay, grain, straw and woodchip.

Examples include:

  • Mold
  • Pollen
  • Pesticides
  • Chemicals
  • Bacteria
  • Animal and pet dander

Organic dust is commonly found in the agricultural industry. Long-term exposure can lead to serious diseases of the respiratory system, including Organic Dust Toxic Syndrome (ODTS) and Farmer’s lung. ODTS is thought to be more common than Farmer’s lung, which is linked to breathing in spores from moldy hay or straw.

Teddy bears on bed in yellow

All about dust mite allergy

Inorganic dust

Inorganic dust comes from grinding metals or minerals such as stone, rock, sand and quartz. If you use power tools you’ll be familiar with the fine powder they create. This is inorganic dust.

Examples of inorganic dust sources include:

When can breathing dust make you sick?

Symptoms can happen at any time, but they’re often worse during or immediately following dusting, sweeping or vacuuming. The process of cleaning disturbs the dust, making the tiny particles easier to breathe in. 

It’s still important to dust regularly and the American Lung Association recommends incorporating dusting into your cleaning routine. This can reduce the amount of dust and improve the overall indoor air quality in your home. If you have dust allergies use a damp cloth and wear an N95 mask during these activities.

Dust management

You can follow these tips to further reduce your exposure to dust indoors:

  • Let the dust settle: Dust may take hours to settle after a thorough clean, so consider leaving your home during this time. If your children have dust allergies try to clean when they are at school or elsewhere. And avoid cleaning their bedroom before bedtime.
  • Install a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter: Use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter and consider fitting your air conditioner with a HEPA filter to help remove dust from your home.
  • Properly maintain airflow systems: Change the filter at least four times per year and get heating systems and cooling units serviced twice a year.
  • Call in the pest control: If you think cockroach waste may be the source of your dust allergies, use traps with non-toxic bait and schedule regular visits from professional exterminators.

If you are affected by dust mites, there are specific tips you can follow to reduce dust mite allergy triggers in your home.

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Treatment for dust allergy

Allergic rhinitis can be treated with antihistamines or corticosteroid nasal sprays. Both can help to control the inflammation and irritation in your nose. Decongestants can also help with a stuffy nose, but they should only be taken for a short amount of time.

If dust mites are causing your eczema symptoms to flare there are skin care regimes to prevent your skin from becoming too dry and itchy. Your healthcare provider can help with this.

Dust mite allergy is sometimes treated with immunotherapy. Treatment involves repeated tiny doses of an allergen over three to five years to retrain your immune system. This can be either as injections or as tablets under your tongue.

Can breathing dust make you sick: A diagnosis

Only your healthcare provider will be able to tell you if dust is making you sick. Try to note when your symptoms happen and any other important details, such as a family history of allergies or work history of exposure to dust.

If your breathing is affected, they may perform a simple lung function test by asking you to inhale or exhale using a device, such as a spirometer.

If you have skin reactions, they may refer you for an allergy skin test to check whether dust mites are the cause. Drops containing small amounts of dust mite allergens are put on your skin, which is then gently pricked. If an itchy bump appears, usually within 15-20 minutes, it could indicate that you have dust mite allergy.

You may also be referred for a blood test. This looks for IgE antibodies in your blood and shows what you could be allergic to.


So, can breathing dust make you sick? Yes, it can. And if it goes untreated it can make you very sick. Hypersensitivity pneumonitis, for example can result in long-term lung damage. Usually though, dust exposure causes much milder symptoms such as a runny nose and sneezing.

Trying to reduce your exposure to organic and inorganic dust is key to reducing symptoms. When this isn’t possible antihistamines, corticosteroids and decongestants can relieve symptoms in the short-term. If your symptoms are getting worse or other treatments are no longer effective speak to your healthcare provider about other treatment options.

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Last medically reviewed on 8.11.2022.