The Harmattan is a season in the West African subcontinent, which occurs between the end of November and the middle of March. It is characterized by dry and dusty northeasterly trade wind, of the same name, which blows from the Sahara Desert over West Africa into the Gulf of Guinea
The harmattan has various effects on our health: The skin, eyes and respiratory tract which are directly exposed to the atmosphere are most vulnerable to the effects of this weather. The Skin is usually dry with accompanying cracking of lips, soles of the feet and sometimes the skin itself. The eyes are directly exposed to the harsh weather especially the dust particles carried by the winds. Thus itching, foreign body sensations and redness may be common especially in those with allergic eye diseases.
The respiratory system because of its direct communication with the atmosphere is also often affected. The respiratory system has a natural defence system which is easily overwhelmed by the high concentration of dust pollutants in the air. The resultant effect is damage to the respiratory system predisposing to infections. Excessive sneezing, cough and catarrh are some of the symptoms that result from these infections. Also the harmattan is not a good season for people with existing respiratory conditions like asthma as the cold dusty weather tends to aggravate this condition. Also it is worthy of note that the epidemics of meningitis usually experienced between February and May in the Northern part of Nigeria is an aftermath of the harmattan.
The harmattan dry, cold and dusty winds also trigger sickle cell crisis in those that are affected by the disease. Finally there is also an increase in the incidence of cases of diarrhea diseases and food borne illnesses due to the dust that settles on foods that are not properly stored or washed before consumption.
Ways to protect ourselves during the harmattan
- The skin can be kept healthy by application of oily creams and weather friendly clothing. Lip balms or the application of Vaseline to the soles of the feet will prevent them from cracking.
- Wearing warm clothes will keep us warm and protect us from the severe cold.
- Proper eye hygiene by rinsing with clean water and reducing the exposure to the dust by wearing protective spectacles is advised.
- Asthma patients or those with chronic respiratory conditions should pay special attention to their health and take all possible and practicable measures to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere and they should carry their inhalers with them at all times.
- Sicklers should be vigilant and keep warm as much as possible to prevent crisis.
- Due to the dusty atmosphere we should imbibe a healthy food preservation culture. Fruits and vegetables should be properly washed before eating and those of us that store our drinking water should always ensure that the containers are always adequately covered.
- We can also keep our homes warm but please be careful as this is also the season when we have the most fire accidents. All fires should not be left unattended and we should avoid indiscriminate burning of refuse during this season.