It's no exaggeration to suggest that summertime in the UAE and throughout the Gulf is tough. It's when we have no option but to contend with unbearable heat, humidity and other environmental woes. We're roasting outside one minute and frozen inside the next, there's dust in the air, the threat of sandstorms is never ending and it's hot.
It’s little wonder, then, that many of us believe that the summer is intrinsically linked to allergies. The suffering many of us go through with respiratory problems and worse, can be tough, and we often notice the symptoms seem to vanish as soon as we spend even a few days overseas.
But is this all in our imaginations or is there real evidence that the air we breathe is doing us harm? Aster Hospital's Dr Sandeep Pargi says that allergies are often difficult to diagnose as they might present various symptoms. "Upon observing anything unusual in your body like sneezing, a running nose, breathing difficulties, itching, etc, make sure you consult a specialist," he says. "An allergy could be caused by various things, like dust, mould, pet hair, all sorts of things, and only a specialist would be able to recognise the symptoms effectively and prescribe the necessary treatment or medication.
"And don't ignore any uncommon symptoms," he cautions. "Coughing and wheezing are often disregarded in the hope that they will get better on their own. Unaware of the fact that they have an allergy, people take medication to manage the symptoms without addressing the real problem. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and asthma are the most commonly suffered respiratory conditions in the region."
They don't normally assume the physical properties seen in Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, but the thick fug we experienced throughout the UAE this month, after dust clouds were blown in from neighbouring Saudi Arabia, proved just how vulnerable we are to airborne particulates – sand or otherwise – and it can be a deeply unpleasant experience for asthma sufferers.
Mohamed Samir is regional managing director at Mundipharma Middle East, which supplies pharmaceuticals to the region’s authorities and pharmacies. He says that being aware of asthma is essential for anyone living in the GCC.
“Several studies conducted in the Gulf countries with a high rate of sandstorms confirmed the increased prevalence of asthma in those areas,” he says. “Just 15 minutes of exposure to smaller-size sandstorm dust particles increases the potential of suffering with asthma. It’s a condition that requires long-term treatment, but it can be managed if precautions are taken to reduce the severity of the symptoms.”
Avoidance, unsurprisingly, is key for those susceptible. Samir advises that when sandstorms hit, we should stay indoors, and keep the windows and doors closed. “An air purifier can help reduce indoor pollution and help you breathe better,” he says. “Purifiers are by no means a cure for asthma, [but] they help to remove the allergens and particles that can trigger symptoms by directing air through a filter. If you are asthmatic, an air purifier can help you breathe more easily by improving indoor air quality.” He also advises wearing a medical face mask or wet towel during sandstorms, to prevent inhaling the dust particles, as well as to stay hydrated when we can’t avoid airborne dust.
Everyone blames air conditioning when coughs, sneezes and sniffles become prevalent during the summer. “It’s used in homes and offices regularly to explain everything from a cold or a dry cough to fatigue and skin irritations,” says Dr Yaser Abu El Sameed, staff physician at Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi’s Respiratory and Critical Care Institute. “The idea that air conditioning spreads germs is something that many people believe but, while there is a degree of truth in this, it doesn’t give the whole picture. The systems typically recirculate the same air, so if someone coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth or nose properly, these germs can be dispersed into the air [that’s then recirculated]. However, that doesn’t guarantee that they will be transferred to someone else.”
More concerning, he says, is old or poorly maintained air-conditioning systems, which can be a breeding ground for mould or mildew. “AC units are full of moisture, and when combined with hot, humid conditions, they provide an ideal environment for bacteria to grow. For those who have allergies, respiratory conditions or weak immune systems, this could lead to a worsening of their symptoms or an infection.”
It's not all bad, though, Dr El Sameed says the air conditioner can act as a "filter to external pollutants that can also be a trigger for those with allergies or respiratory conditions".
But, he goes on to say: “We shouldn’t live cocooned in a cold, air-conditioned environment 24/7. Spending large amounts of time in a cold environment can leave your body feeling stiff, and for those suffering from chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, this can be detrimental. Living continually in a cool environment can also make your body less tolerant to heat. When you have to spend time outside or in a hotter environment this may lead you to feel fatigued.”
Many of the ill-effects of air conditioning, he says, can be countered with regular and professional maintenance of systems.
"If you're moving into a new home or office, or your AC unit hasn't been used in a while, have it cleaned before you first switch it on. There's a likelihood that mould or dust will have built up, so get a professional heating, ventilation and air-conditioning team in to check and clean the system."
At home and in the car
Our homes have much more in them than air conditioning to worry about when it comes to allergies. "Dust mites, pollen, animal dander, smoke, pollution, household chemicals, some perfumes or scents, chalk dust, carpet dust, mould – they are all environmental factors that cause allergic reactions," Pargi says.
There are a number of specialist cleaning contractors in this country who are able to clean soft furnishings and mattresses, removing the truly awful dust mites that get into our most intimate home environments and set off so many allergic reactions. Out of sight is definitely not out of mind, and getting the specialists in to deep-clean our homes can reap huge dividends when it comes to quality of life.
It goes without saying that regular vacuum cleaning of our living spaces is essential, but we must also ensure that the filters in our equipment are replaced when necessary. And the same goes for our cars, with most modern models being fitted with pollen and particulate filters to keep the cabin area as pleasant as possible. It is important to ensure these are replaced with quality items when our cars are serviced.
Dr Fabrizio Facchini, consultant pulmonologist at Dubai’s Valiant Clinic, says that children are more susceptible because their immune systems are not fully developed and that anyone can develop allergies at any time in their life.
“People need to be exposed at least once to develop symptoms for the second time they are exposed,” he says.
“This can happen even after thousands of times of asymptomatic exposure – that is exposure with no symptoms. For example, all of a sudden someone who’s had a cat for a very long time, can one day develop an allergy.”
The same can be said for various foods, chemicals, cosmetics and even washing powders. "Any substance, often a protein, might have parts that are recognised by the body's immune system as allergens and can produce allergic reactions: animals such as cats, dogs, rabbits and horses; pillows with goose feathers; foods such as shrimp, peanuts, wheat, milk protein and more," Dr Facchini says.
As if we didn’t have enough to contend with, right? The important thing to take away from this, though, is that should we develop an allergy to anything, there’s usually a way around it. Even if that means getting away to the North Pole for a couple of weeks in the summer. Just consult a specialist first.