The dry season in Nigeria falls between late October and early March with peak dry conditions between early December and late February. This period coincides with the season of Christmas and end of year festivities. In this season, birds migrate, puddles dry up and the sun rays get even hotter. It is characterized by the ‘Harmattan’ wind (an extremely dry wind which blows from the Sahara desert and picks up dust particles and debris in its way, thereby spreading it in the atmosphere) causing health hazards to the skin eyes, nose/respiratory system and mouth. Since health is at risk, it is only befitting that we take steps to keep ourselves safe from disease vectors and pathogens to ensure we enjoy the festive season in good health.
WHAT IS PERCULIAR WITH THE DRY SEASON?
The dry season brings with it a very dry weather that reduces sweating, thereby increasing body heat.
There is a high production of pollen grains from blooming flowering plants and the dry wind increases their concentration level in the air and environment.
The ultraviolet rays from the hit the earth and have greater ability to cause damage to body cells.
The dry weather causes more leaves to wither and more bush-burning is done causing air pollution as a result of toxic fumes to the environment.
The high concentration of dust particles in the air also aids its carrying capacity for airborne infectious agents.
WHAT ARE THE HEALTH IMPLICATIONS?
Scientific authorities have proof that weather changes affect people’s health. Allergic reactions increase during the dry season as a result of the increase in pollen production from flowering plants. Allergens from bacteria, fungi and virus when in contact with the conjunctiva (a thin, clear, moist membrane that lines the inner parts of the eyelids and the outer surface of the eye) of the eye cause tissue swelling and inflammation (conjunctivitis also known as ‘Apollo’). The immune system gets attacked and tries to fight the allergens. The interaction of the allergens and the immune system leads to itching, watering and swelling.
The eyes could then get infected if the viral, bacterial and fungal allergens win the war leading to red and discharging eyes. There is increased tendency for eyes to get dry, hurt and burn during this season because there is an imbalance between tear production from the tear ducts and moisture evaporation from the front surface of the eyes. This leads to symptoms of irritation, grittiness, itching or a feeling of something stuck in the eyes (foreign body sensation). Tearing will increase thereby blurring vision.
Extremes of temperature (fall in barometric pressure), sharp rise in humidity, sudden drop in temperature can trigger migraine headaches more in this season.
Asthma becomes even more problematic during this season both for exercise-induced asthma and pollen-induced asthma. This is because of cold weather in the former and pollen grains and dust particles in the latter.
Heart disease symptoms are increased due to extremes of temperature especially in the aged and children. Drop in temperature and rise in humidity increases the risk of joint pains in arthritic patients. Increased temperature and heat waves also increases risk for meningitis and stroke (Cardiovascular Accidents).
UV rays have caused Corneal and Retinal burns in the past and studies show an increased risk of skin cancer especially in albinos in this season.
WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Extreme personal hygiene is of utmost importance. Long nails, dirty hands and hair may serve as reservoir for infectious agents. False eye lashes may not allow your eyes to breathe.
A clean house/surroundings keep you protected from mites, roaches, rodents, mold and dampness. Dust all exposed surfaces frequently. Wash the curtains/drapes, beddings and pay special attention to kitchens, bathrooms, basements and laundry areas as they could be hiding places for pathogens and disease vectors. A clean home doesn’t allow allergens to thrive.
Boost your immunity through good nutrition, fresh air, and health/age-appropriate exercises. Fermented/left over foods should be avoided because they contain histamine which triggers allergic responses. Avoid long outdoor activities. Wearing wide-rimmed hats and rubbing sunscreen with Sun Protection Factor (SPF) ≥15 is useful.
When travelling on dusty roads, protect your eyes with sun shields or handkerchiefs, or try travelling in the early mornings or late evenings.
Rehydrate by drinking lots of water. While indoors, an air-conditioner with a humidifier helps to avoid drying up the air. Humidity can be maintained at 35-45%.
Wearing masks while cutting grass, digging around plants or picking leaves outdoors. Sunglasses especially the wrap around types can be useful because they block UV rays, dust and pollens from entering the eyes.
Avoid self-medication and traditional practices in eye health. Consult your Optometrist for evaluation, diagnosis and treatment of eye problems.
WHAT WILL YOUR OPTOMETRIST DO?
Your Optometrist is trained to differentiate between symptoms and come to a correct diagnosis and prescribe appropriate treatment as Bacterial, Viral and Fungal red eyes have different treatment pathways. You may need anti-infectives, anti-histamines, decongestants, artificial tears, eye washes or correct sunglasses and counseling. So avoid self-medication.
Not all dark shades have UV protection. Your optometrist is in a better position to determine the transmission factor of your sunglasses.
It is time to prepare for the allergy season. A stitch in time saves nine.
Dr. Ejitu Mfon Isong (BSc, OD, MPH, FNOA, FNCO, FAAO)