By Chioma Obinna
Undoubtedly, there is no season of the year that does not come without affecting people’s lives either positively or negatively, but the negative effects of harmattan season seem to outweigh its benefits.
The season is here again. But the big question is how well are you protecting your self? Experts say harmattan comes with dust that can trigger asthma and bronchitis attacks as well as cause cold, cough, catarrh, and even meningitis.
Harmattan season is usually a dry and dusty period associated with low humidity. As a result, the weather is harsh to the hair as well as the skin. Also, studies have shown that some micro-organisms that cause diseases increase during harmattan period.
According to experts, harmattan can be described as a hot, dry and dusty wind that blows over West Africa. The wind is said to blow from the Sahara Desert into the Gulf of Guinea between the end of November and the middle of March.
Desert-like weather conditions
On its passage over the desert, the wind is said to pick up fine dust and sand particles, while the air is particularly dry and desiccating when the wind blows over the region.
As a result, harmattan induces desert-like weather conditions: it lowers the humidity, dissipates cloud cover, prevents rainfall formation and sometimes creates big clouds of dust or sand which can even result in violent dust-storms or sandstorms.
However, when the haze effect is weak, this dry wind creates beautiful sunny days with plenty of clear skies.
In the views of medical exrperts, the dry weather conditions associated with it have various health implications on humans, affecting their respiratory system, skin and eyes.
A Consultant Public Health Physician/Epidemiologist, Prof. Akin Osibogun, who linked the current increase in the number of people coming down with cold and cough to outbreak of a viral infection commonly referred to as flu, noted that the ear, nose and throat are the first line of receivers.
“The nose is at the fore front, it’s the first organ that takes in air that we breath, before the air gets to the throat and then to the lungs. So, the nose is at the receiving end. When the weather changes, and there is this dry humid air coming in with lots of dust and haze, you find out that the nose has to adjust itself, it works like the air-conditioning system in the nose and sinuses. They warm the air before it’s transported to the lungs just to make it feel comfortable and they also feel tight.
In harmattan season, there is a lot more solids in the air because of the dust, so the air is heavier, more irritating to the nose. The inner part of the nose is very soft and delicate just like a blanket and the nose produces this mucus that makes it a lot more comfortable so when there is a lot more dust, that blanket is almost overcome.
The Consultant said it can affect the nose, skin and lungs, but that of the nose comes with lots of sneezing and watery discharge. When it is so much, you find some people sneezing a lot and that can also lead to a lot more crust in the nose.
Seasonality is not uncommon with many living things because of the weather changes that go with different seasons. Dry cold weather allows for the transmission of airborne infections. The same factors account for the seasonality of Meningitis in the Northern parts of Nigeria which is seen mostly between November and February.
The expert advised people to limit their exposure to dust.
“How do you do this? Like in a house that have curtains, you can wash them.
“Air-conditioners should also be serviced to avoid harmattan induced symptoms. Wipe windows, fans with wet rags. You cannot really control the dust on the street but you can control the ones around your environment.
Also in his views, a Family Medicine Specialist in the Lagos State University Teaching Hospital, Oluwajimi Shodipo said that harmattan dust increase cases of respiratory infections such as asthma, cough, catarrh, tonsillitis, influenza, and pneumonia.
“Harmattan comes with dust that can trigger asthma and bronchitis attacks as well as cause cold, cough, catarrh, and even meningitis. “This gives discomfort to people with certain allergic conditions as well as causes infections.
“Asthma patients should be cautious. They tend to have more attacks because harmattan carries dust, pollen grains and other allergenic materials capable of triggering attacks,” he said.
He advised people to take more liquid, especially water, during harmattan to prevent dehydration and heatstroke.
“Another thing that can help is steam inhalation. Just boil water, cover your head. The water doesn’t have to be at boiling point to avoid face burns. The moisture will help to sooth the nose, sinuses as well as the lungs.
“Harmattan also worsens conditions like the sore throat, the dry air taken irritates the throat adding that “Some people that have allergy (and it worsens) as the voice changes and becomes very croaky. As for such people, it could go further and they have asthmatic attack because that dry air when it gets to the lungs it starts a chain reaction. Some children at this time also have a lot of asthma. If the symptoms persist you need to visit a doctor.”
Studies have also shown that harmattan also triggers sickle cell crisis in those with sickle cell anaemia. Oxygen in blood is usually reduced in extreme temperatures, like cold. Thus, patients with sickle cell anaemia should take precaution and keep warm as much as possible to prevent a crisis.
Why there is cold and cough in environment
Also, a Consultant Public Health Physician/Epidemiologist, Prof. Akin Osibogun, who is also a former Chief Medical Director, Lagos University Teaching Hospital, LUTH, advised that people should observe high level of personal hygiene as the infection is often spread from person to person through sneezing and coughing.
According to him, Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses and can cause mild to severe illness.
Osibogun who listed some of the symptoms of flu to include fever, chills, fatigue, body aches, sore throat, and headache also explained that not everyone with flu will have a fever.
The flu is different from a cold. It usually occurs from late November through February.
Serious flu complications
“Some people, such as older people, young children, and people with certain health conditions, are at high risk for serious flu complications. The best way to prevent the flu is by getting vaccinated each year; unfortunately, Nigeria is yet to get a vaccine for the contagious infection.”
Osibogun further explained that usually the virus wears out in a couple of days unless complicated especially by a superimposing bacterial infection which must be aggressively treated with appropriate antibiotics.
He, however, said people should not panic but observe high level of personal hygiene to prevent spread of the virus.
Osibogun, who acknowledged that there could be complications in some cases, added that complication such as bacterial pneumonia, dehydration, and worsening of chronic medical conditions, such as congestive heart failure, asthma, or diabetes could occur.
Also, children may get sinus problems and ear infections as complications from the flu.
How to protect yourself from Harmattan
The skin can be kept healthy by application of oily creams and weather friendly clothing. Lip balms or the application of Vaseline to the soles of the feet will prevent them from cracking.
Wearing warm clothes will keep you warm and protect us from the severe cold. Proper eye hygiene by rinsing with clean water and reducing the exposure to the dust by wearing protective spectacles is advised.
Asthma patients or those with chronic respiratory conditions should pay special attention to their health and take all possible and practicable measures to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere and they should carry their inhalers with them at all times.
Sickle cell patients should be vigilant and keep warm as much as possible to prevent crisis.