Harmattan haze and treating side effects

harmattanThe Harmattan season is here again with its peculiar weather, which brings in its trail some ailments. These are mainly respiratory and visual.

The traditional Harmattan season leads to poor visibility for drivers and pilots, while children and adults could also suffer from cold, cough, and catarrh, among other diseases.

In addition, the dry dusty wind is capable of causing a variety of domestic inconveniences because of the dust, which envelopes the atmosphere.

The negative effects of harmattan haze include dry skin, cracked lips and soles of the feet. And to avert this discomfort, individuals should avoid attitudes that might trigger these conditions.

Dr. Olubunmi Omojowolo, former President, Association of Resident Doctors, Lagos University Teaching Hospital (LUTH), said harmattan is a hot, dry and dusty wind that blows over West Africa. The wind blows from the Sahara Desert into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March. Harmattan has very far-reaching medical implication, as it consists of fine dust particles between 0.5 and 10 micrometres. 

Omojowolo said it affects all exposed surfaces of the human body, including the skin, eyes, nose, mouth and the respiratory tract, which directly communicate with the atmosphere.

He said: “The skin can become dry during harmattan season as a result of the dry wind. When the skin is dry, it becomes wrinkled. The skin can also have cracks, which can degenerate into bruises. People also have the tendency to develop skin rashes during the season, which can also induce itching, whereby they may inadvertently introduce infections to the skin.

“Therefore, people need to be well hydrated during the period, and use emollient creams which help in moisturising the skin. Adequate fluid intake can also prevent heatstroke. If one has bad cracks on the skin, there is the need to wear clothes that would cover the feet and other parts of the body prone to dryness. It is very necessary to wear appropriate cloths”.

“Harmattan can also predispose people to asthmatic attacks, sneezing and coughing. There is plenty of dust, pollen and hay fever, which cause irritation, inflammation of the airways and triggers allergic reactions. Crust and dryness in the nostrils may also predispose to epistaxis. 

“It is safer sometimes, to wear sunglasses to protect the eyes, where the winds are quite dusty and harsh, to prevent infections and irritations. People should observe high level of personal hygiene to prevent the spread of infections, such as flu and tuberculosis from person to person through sneezing and coughing.”

Dr. Obinna Ebirim, a fellow of the United States Mandela Washington Fellowship for young African leaders, said although it is mostly very cold during harmattan, it can also be hot.

“Associated health hazard is related to contact with this dusty and dry air by parts of the human body, such as the airway, nose, oesophagus and lungs, eyes, and various part of the skin,” he explained.

“There are other hazards that are associated with human interaction with the environment during this period. During harmattan, there is an increased tendency to breathe dry air with lots of dusty particles, which leads to increased incidence of sneezing, nose bleeding, cough, catarrh, sore throat, as well as trigger attacks in asthmatic patients,” he said. “So to prevent some of these respiratory diseases indoors, we must wash our curtains, clean our windows, fans and air conditioner filters, and avoid fluffy rugs or regularly vacuum clean them. It is advisable to drink lots of water during this period and do stream inhalation, with water not too hot to burn the face, which helps to smooth the airway. “

“Minor nosebleeds, due to breakage of small blood vessels during aggressive sneezing can be healed with little or no First Aid, but if it continues, one must approach a health facility for care, as there could be other causes that must be arrested. Lozenges helps with sore throat, but one must seek proper health care, if symptoms persist.”

Ebirim explained that asthmatic patients must remember to always be with their inhaler and those on medications should be compliant. He said the dusty particles in the air can find their way into our eyes and can cause tearing, redness, itching and allergic eye diseases.

“It is advisable to wash the eyes with clean water and non-medicated protective eye glasses can be used. Doctors might prescribe simple allergic eye drops to relieve uncomplicated allergic eye diseases.

During the cold weather, the oxygen content of the blood might be reduced, which can trigger attacks in sickle cell anaemia patients. So, it is advisable to keep warm and wear layers of clothing. Also, the very cold weather can predispose children and the elderly, to hypothermia. So, a closer care and warmth should be provided to these age groups”.

“Humidity drops by 10 to 15 per cent during the harmattan season. Thus, regular washing of hands and body is important to remove settled dust on the skin and use of moisturising creams should also help.

“The harmattan season overlaps with the meningitis season and with the increased incidence of respiratory diseases, mothers are advised to ensure their children are vaccinated. We must not wait for this period because the positive effects of immunisation are far reaching and protect against diseases we do not know when they would attack.”

Ebirim said harmattan is associated with increased rate of fire outbreaks; therefore, people must avoid bush burning and careless exposure of inflammable materials.

“Burn cases are serious, so affected patients must be rushed to the hospital to be rehydrated and treated. The harmattan haze is also associated with poor visibility. So, there is increased rate of road accidents in the early and late part of the day.

“Motorists and road users are advised to be cautious, drive slowly and use their headlamps. Road emergency teams must be alert to respond to unforeseen circumstances”.

“The harmattan season is associated with known health hazards, most of which can be prevented. Prevention has remained better than cure, thus, everyone must be cautious.”
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