Harmattan Blues: Medical conditions that come or worsen with this harsh weather

The Harmattan is a dry and dusty wind which blows from the Sahara Desert over the West African subcontinent between the end of November and the middle of March. It is cold in some places and hot in others, according to differing circumstances.

The Harmattan brings desert-like weather conditions:

  • it lowers the humidity
  • dissipates cloud cover
  • prevents rainfall formation
  • creates big clouds of dust

Effect on our Health

Skin Conditions

Dry skin: (because of obvious loss of moisture) you may have cracked lips, cracks in the sole of the feet and even the skin itself. Some cracks even become ulcerated. Those with have a natural dry skin tends to have scales and blisters on their skin during this period

Also, when the weather is cold, Infants, children and the elderly are more vulnerable to a low body temperature (hypothermia; below 35 degrees centigrade) due to a sub-optimal temperature regulating mechanism.


  • Keep lips and skin well lubricated: Shea butter does a great job.


Nose problems

Spontaneous nosebleeds are common for some people because the nose is at the forefront, takes in the dry dusty air that we breathe. So the nose tries to warm the air, acting like a conditioner, before it’s transported to the lungs where the air is utilized optimally.

The humidifying effect of the nose on the air leads to a dry mucous lining of the nose and induces a lot of nose picking. Excessive nose pickings or violent sneezing against a blocked nostril can damage blood vessels within the nose. The bleeding is usually from just one nostril and would need urgent medical attention


  • When the air is really harsh, even breathing can become painful, thus, steam inhalation comes in handy. Thi will have a moisturizing effect that will soothe the nose.
  • Use a face mask when traveling through very dusty regions
  • Always have your antihistamine if you are prone to excessive sneezing from allergic rhinitis

Eye disorders (Acute red eyes)

Apollo (Viral Conjunctivitis) is very common from the mid-November month and is caused by a virus that the wind sweeps along its path. Although the virus is self-limiting, it can be a nuisance as it infects all family members if care is not taken. Also, there is a risk of secondary bacterial infection.

Allergic Conjunctivitis: when the eyes are exposed to the dust particles, mites, and pollen carried by the dry, cold and dusty wind, they can also irritate the conjunctiva leading to itching, redness, and a feeling of having foreign bodies in the eyes. Also, excessive dust particles and other infections may irritate the cornea, leading to acute keratitis which also presents with red eyes, eye discharge and other symptoms similar to conjunctivitis.


  • Have nasal and plain/anti-allergic eye drops
  • General covering of the head is beneficial
  • maintain good personal hygiene


Due to the connection between the nose and the throat and the ears, some people who are prone to having ear infections finds this period a nightmare. They have blocked ears which may also have a purulent discharge as infection passes through the eustachian tube. Also, dust may get trapped in the ear and lead to infection of the middle ear, called otitis media.


  • Use mildly wet wool to clean the ears
  • See a doctor if you have serious pain and discharge from the ear, you may need antibiotics

Other Infections

It is important to remember that meningitis caused by a meningococcal infection is usually experienced between February to May in the ‘meningitis belt’ and some parts of Nigeria. Thus, routine immunizations should be a top priority.


The harmattan also triggers sickle cell crisis in those with sickle cell anemia. Oxygen in blood is usually reduced in extremes of temperatures, like the cold or heat this weather serves. This extremity can induce the blood cells to coagulate under this external stress, and combined with the dehydration,  Thus, it is important that people with Sickle cell disorder take extra precautions, keep warm, and increase their water intake.


  • They should just communicate properly with those around them to achieve a stable, healthy environment
  • They should seek medical help immediately when symptoms of a crises ensue.

Respiratory system

Asthma: After the air leaves the nose, some unfiltered allergens (pollens, dust, mites) can still reach the lungs thus leading to aggravation of asthma. A special precaution to reduce exposure to the dusty atmosphere is imperative for asthmatics and in addition, having their inhaler with them all the times is advisable.

Respiratory infections

  • Pneumonia: The dust particles may overwhelm the system and predispose it to infection. It is common place to experience excessive sneezing, cough and catarrh.
  • Flu is a contagious respiratory illness caused by influenza viruses and can cause mild to severe illness
  • Superimposing bacterial infection can take advantage of any imbalance and must be aggressively treated with appropriate antibiotics.


  • Prompt treatment of respiratory symptoms like a cough, catarrh, and others is important.

Other recommendations

  • Air-conditioners should also be serviced to avoid harmattan induced symptoms. Wipe windows, fans with wet rags.
  • Wearing weather friendly dressing is advised. Citizens at this time should seek means of keeping warm especially by putting on warm clothing.
  • Proper eye hygiene and care in form of washing with clean water reduce exposure to dust and use of protective spectacles is encouraged during this period.
  • Take more liquid, especially water, during harmattan to prevent dehydration and heatstroke.
  • Observe a high level of personal hygiene to prevent the spread of the virus.
  • Drive carefully due to reduced visibility; try not to have an allergic attack while driving as well
  • Stay alerted; not only are fire outbreaks common observe your surroundings and not fall a victim to other’s carelessness or misfortune.


Author: Dr Ahmad Abdullah, MBBS, MSc Clinical Pathology

Ahmad is a father, a husband and a poet. He was born and raised in Lagos, Nigeria. He earned his medical degree from the University of Juba, currently in South Sudan. He is interested in medical research and currently practicing in Lagos, Nigeria.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s