Dubai, UAE: Summer means not only the start of hot and dusty weather, but also an increase in people seeking treatment for what feels like a common cold.
But instead of reaching for the nearest cold remedies, health experts are urging sufferers to have themselves checked for allergies.
More than a third of the population suffers from allergies, especially in the hotter months when sand particles, pollen and dust are inhaled through the nose, triggering allergic rhinitis.
"Almost 36 per cent of the population suffers from allergic rhinitis and it is on the increase," said Dr Abdulla Ibrahim, a consultant ear, nose and throat specialist at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.
"The confusion arises because the symptoms of allergic reactions are similar to the common cold, like a runny nose and sneezing. As a result many people assume they have a cold and as such don’t get the correct medication."
If untreated, allergies can develop into more serious conditions such as sinusitis, an inflammation of the sinus lining which in children could develop into asthma.
Allergic rhinitis differs from the common cold in that it usually lasts for more than 10 days, and sufferers feel symptoms immediately, unlike a cold which develops gradually. Itchy eyes, runny nose and nasal congestion that can cause sleep loss are also common.
However, unlike with a cold, there are no muscle aches and pains.
Allergies must be treated with antihistamines and decongestants. Sufferers should take precautions and try to stay indoors when there is a sandstorm, and shower immediately if they have been outside to wash away pollen, said Dr Ibrahim.
They should also make sure their home is clean and keep pets and plants out of bedrooms. Regular maintenance of air conditioning units is also recommended to prevent build-up of bacteria.
"Our pharmacies frequently receive customers suffering from respiratory conditions and nasal congestion caused by weather changes and they are often ill-informed as to what those conditions might be," said Dr Saleema Shurrab, general manager of BinSina Pharmacy, which launched the Assess Your Nose campaign to make people aware of the seriousness of allergies.
A questionnaire has been created in coordination with health experts to help pharmacists assess sufferers.
"If answers to the questions reveal that the customer has something more serious than a cold then they will either be advised to go to a doctor or offered non-prescription treatment," said Mazen Altauruti, managing director of healthcare company MSD Gulf.
"The shamal winds from southern Iraq kick up dust, pollen and other pollutants into the air and bring them into the UAE," said Sofian Farrah, a forecaster at the National Centre of Meteorology and Seismology in Abu Dhabi.
"It’s difficult to know the cause for sure but over the past 100 years we have seen an increase in the number of sandstorms."
Winds from Iran, air currents from the monsoon season in the subcontinent and dry air from the empty quarter also pick up various types of pollutants, he said.
"We also have pollution from offshore oil refineries almost on a daily basis coming into the country," he said.
The weather centre has daily updates on its website to alert people to sandstorms.
"We send warnings to motorists because visibility reduces significantly and to people with allergies advising them to stay indoors," said Mr Farrah.
"The variety of different pollutants in sandstorms cause a great many people to be affected as there is such a diversity of what can trigger allergies in these storms."
© The NationalMay 2014