By Oge Okafor
The harmattan season is just beginning in most southwestern cities of Nigeria like Oyo and Lagos but Nigerians residing in the northern part of of the country are already in the thick of it.
This, according to Dr Kola Afolabi, Medical Director of Ago Medical Centre, Lagos could be attributed to climate change and, heavy/dense population commonly found in the said southwestern states in Nigeria.
Meanwhile, Dr Tunde Soleye, an Ibadan based medical practitioner laments that the heat appears to be too much now, in a couple of days, we should look forward to the harmattan season. He therefore advised Nigerians to take more of vitamin C based foods which are mainly fruits like oranges, water melon etc, increase water intake and ensure thorough handling of food items. These tips, he said will go a long way to prevent infections commonly associated with the harmattan season.
The harmattan season is usually characterised by a cold, dry and dusty wind. It is usually experienced between the end of November and the middle of March and there is change in temperature during the day and night.
With the season comes desert-like weather, low humidity, dissipated cloud cover that prevents rain formation. Sometimes, big clouds of dust can result in dust storms or sandstorms and heavy amount of dust in the air can severely limit visibility and block the sun for several days. This cost airlines so much in cancelled and diverted flights annually.
When this occurs, humidity drops to as low as 15 percent, which can result in spontaneous nosebleeds for some people. Other health effects on humans may include conditions of the skin, eyes and respiratory system including aggravation of asthma.
Dr Raphael Aluko, a general practitioner further explains that low humidity associated with harmattan causes dryness in the throat, nostrils and other parts of the upper respiratory tract creating an environment for virus, bacteria and other microorganisms to thrive. When these organisms thrive in such environment, they cause ailments like cough, cold, catarrh, pain in the throat and down to the lower respiratory tracts with asthma and pneumonia-an infection of the lungs.
He adds that “the eyes are not spared as there is irritation that causes conjunctivitis (apollo) and because of the dust that settles on the skin, there is generally itching. Therefore, it is important that we protect ourselves against this harsh weather by showering constantly and wearing protective clothing especially for newborn babies, children and the elderly.”
Soleye concurs with this by saying that common ailments to expect this season are cough, cold and catarrh and this is because of dust particles present in the atmosphere. Furthermore, mosquitoes and mosquitoes bites will be “greatly reduced, so there won’t be episode of malaria,” he said.
Prevention starts with first eating plenty of fruits and vegetables, staying physically fit and getting enough sleep and this will keep your immune system strong. Secondly, get vaccinated particularly against the two most common types- influenza virus and pneumococcus. Thirdly, see your doctor about any cough that’s getting worse after about four days or if the cough is bloody or oddly coloured with foul smelling sputum. Lastly, limit the spread of the viruses and bacteria that can cause pneumonia by washing your hands properly and frequently.
Meanwhile, it is important to stay healthy and fit during this season, therefore health experts advise that people protect their bodies from various communicable illnesses associated with the season.
Dr Gabriel Omonaiye of God’s Goal Hospital, Lagos, says one of the ways to stay healthy during this harmattan season is to wear warm and thick clothing such as sweater and coats especially at night and particularly for old people and children because of the cold to reduce the chances of contracting these diseases.
Another way of protecting oneself is to use sunglasses because of the winds that are often quite dusty and harsh such that it could send particles into the eyes to prevent infection. When driving, road users should drive carefully as visibility will be reduced. Car owners should ensure that their wipers are okay; avoid speeding and practice defensive driving. If possible, night driving should be avoided and in instances where it is not possible, car accessories should be in good working condition.
Being a dry and dusty period, the harmattan is associated with little amount of moisture in the atmosphere (low humidity). This makes the weather harsh on the hair, lips and skin. To protect the lips from dryness and cracking, petroleum jelly and lip balm can be used. For the skin, a mild lotion will do more good than harm.
Since dehydration usually occurs during the harmattan season, individuals are encouraged to take adequate (sufficient) amount of fluid.
Meanwhile asthmatic patients should take their prescribed drugs regularly during attacks.
Fruits and vegetables should be properly washed before consumption. Food and potable water containers should be properly covered.
Asthma patients should be cautious. They tend to have more attacks because harmattan carries dust, pollen grains and other allergenic material capable of triggering attacks.
Vitamin C would aid recovery for people already with such ailments.
The most important measure to prevent these illnesses is to avoid infected individuals. Frequent hand washing is also extremely important, as this can destroy viruses that have been acquired from touching contaminated surfaces. Also, try to avoid sharing utensils and try to use disposable items (such as disposable cups) if someone in the family has a cold.
Finally, lifestyle modifications such as smoking cessation and avoiding other sources of smoke and stress management may decrease your susceptibility to acquiring the common cold. At this time, an effective vaccine against the common cold is not available. If there are seasonal allergies like hay fever, stay indoors during days when airborne allergens are high.
If possible, keep the windows closed and use an air conditioner. Avoid fans that draw in air from outdoors. Shower and change your clothes after being outside. If allergies persist year round, cover your pillows and mattress with dust mite covers, use air purifier and avoid pets and other triggers.