Why are hay fever and allergies so bad during the UAE summer?

Humidity, pollen and dirty air-conditioning units are largely to blame

Clogged air conditioners and dust and sand in the air outside can cause sneezing, particularly in summer. PA
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If you're reading this while sneezing and rubbing your eyes, you're not the only one.

High humidity, pollen and poorly maintained air-conditioning units are causing more allergic reactions, such as sneezing and coughing, during the summer, according to doctors.

A potent cocktail of contributing factors has created a miserable period for some, as more time is spent indoors during the summer.

Pollen, poorly maintained AC units and dust mites embedded in carpets and bedding can cause runny noses, itchy eyes and even breathing difficulties.

“Grass pollen is the primary trigger of pollen allergies during the summer months, and in humid climates like the UAE, the grass pollen season can last up to several months,” said Dr Pragati Agrawal, a specialist pulmonologist at NMC Royal Hospital, Khalifa City, Abu Dhabi.

“Fine dust in the air, high humidity, along with a rise in the pollen during summer, can contribute to airway irritation, frequent sneezing and coughing – especially in susceptible individuals.

“Due to high humidity and increased use of air conditioning, it's not uncommon to see a rise in indoor allergens like mould and dust mites which can further aggravate the problem.”

Aggravating factors of a poor environment, either at work or in the home, can create havoc for those already suffering with respiratory problems like asthma or cardio pulmonary obstructive disorder.

“Being a pulmonologist I have seen a significant rise is allergic bronchitis,” said Dr Agrawal.

“Also, there has been an increase in cases of asthma flare-ups and worsening of other chronic respiratory condition due to these environmental triggers.

A regional study of asthma in 2018, published in the BMC Pulmonary Medicine journal, found between 4.4 and 7.6 per cent of the Middle East population had the condition.

That figure was slightly lower than the numbers reported in Europe and North America, with prevalence of asthma in the UAE estimated to be between 2.79-8 per cent of the population.

Poor air quality a driving force

Poor air quality due to pollution and dust is often worse in warmer weather.

The air quality index combines measurements of five environmental pollutants to rate how safe it is to go outside, particularly for people with chronic respiratory conditions, and the more vulnerable such as the elderly and young children.

An AQI green reading of 0-50 is considered safe, whereas colours from yellow, orange and red show the air is getting more polluted and can impact existing breathing problems.

A purple reading of 201-300 AQI is very unhealthy, while the most dangerous rating of more than 300 (maroon) means outdoor exertion should be avoided by everyone.

Dr Kiran Kumar Rai, head of paediatrics at Burjeel Day Surgery Centre, Reem Island, said regular maintenance of air-conditioning units can help to reduce symptoms indoors.

“The main allergies [during the summer] are caused by air conditioning, particularly in children who are spending more time indoors,” he said.

“In other parts of the world, it usually happens in spring from pollen and flowering plants. Here, it is more likely a result of the indoor environment and also dust and sand in the air outside.

“It can be a problem when it is windy, as fine particles of dust can cause an allergic response,” Dr Rai said.

“People should try and stay inside at this time, or at least wear a face mask if they need to go out then.

“If there is fungal mould, particularly in the AC ducts at home or in the office, it will cause a reaction so they should be cleaned regularly.”

Hisham Jaber, co-founder of The Healthy Home, a company cleaning air-conditioning systems in the UAE said summer is a busy time.

“Most people don’t know that their home can be two to five times more polluted than outside, which can have very strong impacts on their health, and trigger asthma and allergies,” he said.

“Dust particles and other debris accumulate in the AC filters over time.

“Clogged filters no longer play their role and, as a result, allow dust to enter the house.

“Cleaner filters can play an important role in reducing the allergic irritation and discomfort commonly associated with seasonal transitions.”

Updated: August 24, 2023, 12:16 PM