By Kaelanne Jordan
If you’re an allergy sufferer like me, you’d probably stocked up on allergy medicine and resigned yourself to staying indoors when news broke of high concentrations of Saharan dust in Trinidad and Tobago’s atmosphere last June.
The Trinidad and Tobago Weather Center (ttweathercenter.com) reported that larger, more concentrated plumes of Sahara dust, which begin to occur in April, will continue through November.
Environmental dust such as Saharan dust has been linked to numerous health problems. The Saharan dust particles may affect the general population by becoming trapped in the upper airway and causing upper airway and mucus membrane irritation. Fine dust particles can also carry a range of other harmful things including bacteria, virus, fungi, pollutants and allergens. Exposure to the Saharan dust may cause or worsen irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, coughing and wheezing, pre-existing health conditions (asthma, bronchitis, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), lower respiratory tract infections (viral, bacterial and fungal), interstitial lung disease and cardiovascular diseases.
Children, older adults, persons with allergies, those with chronic lung disease (including asthma, COPD, interstitial lung disease) and underlying cardiovascular disease are at higher risk of developing symptoms.
According to Dr Sana Mohammed, Pulmonologist at Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex (EWMSC) and Secretary at the Thoracic Society of Trinidad and Tobago (TSOTT), there are several ways for persons to limit exposure to Sahara dust.
-Monitoring local air quality reports and news coverage related to dust plume from the Trinidad and Tobago Weather Center and daily news updates.
-If outside appears dusty or the level of health concern with regard to Sahara dust is significant, outdoor activities should be limited.
-A face mask should be worn when outside. This helps to limit dust particles into the nose and mouth.
-Indoor air should be kept as clean as possible. This can be done by keeping windows or doors closed. A filtered air conditioning unit or the use of an air purifier with a HEPA filter can be used to reduce exposure.
If going outside is necessary when there is Saharan dust, persons can consider using a disposable respirator mask, Dr Mohammed said.
She explained a respirator is effective only if it is designed to capture very small particles, and the mask is worn correctly and seals effectively on your face.
Dr Mohammed stressed that simple cloth barriers, such as bandanas and cloth masks, do not filter out small airborne particles and will not protect against the effects of Saharan dust.
With various online reports citing experts saying that the Saharan dust could mimic COVID-19 symptoms, Dr Mohammed confirmed that there is some overlap of respiratory symptoms including cough and shortness of breath as well as upper respiratory symptoms such as irritation of nose and throat.
“The main difference is that Saharan dust exposure should not cause a fever or high temperature and COVID-19 usually does. Saharan dust symptoms also usually occur more frequently in the at-risk groups. If there is any concern or uncertainty about these symptoms, it is advised that medical advice be sought,” she said.
As it relates to the wearing of face masks for asthmatic persons, Dr Mohammed observed some people with asthma may experience discomfort or have trouble breathing while wearing a face mask. For persons with mild or well-controlled asthma, wearing a face mask usually should not be an issue. In poorly controlled asthma or patients with severe disease (numerous hospitalisations for asthma, frequent exacerbations, uncontrolled symptoms, requiring lots of medications), these patients may be less able to wear a facemask.
“When it is necessary that persons with asthma wear a mask, it may be a good idea to try out a face mask at home first to ensure it does not make breathing more difficult,” she said.