Hazards in the air

Air pollution can be a major problem for children with underlying respiratory illnesses.

Air pollution is a problem for everyone, not just people with respiratory diseases.

Hence, when the days get hazy and the air is full of pollutants, we can all be sure that staying indoors is something we look forward to.

We are not the only ones facing this problem. Many other neighbouring countries have to cope with it too.

The haze is caused by particulates or fine particles that are suspended in the atmosphere in high concentrations, which cannot be seen by the naked eye.

The general health effects of haze on a healthy child are usually mild and can be treated easily. At most, they may bring symptoms like irritation of the eyes or nose, or skin rash.

However, if your child has a history of respiratory problems, sinusitis and allergic skin conditions, he or she may be more vulnerable. If your child has asthma, then the symptoms may be more severe.

An asthma attack occurs when a child suffers recurrent attacks of shortness of breath and wheezing caused by the swelling of the bronchial tubes, which in turn, narrows the air passage and reduces the flow of air in and out of the lungs.

The main reasons haze can severely affect children with asthma are because:

  • They play outdoors;
  • They have faster breathing rates;
  • Their lungs are still developing; and
  • Their lungs are more sensitive.

Symptoms to watch out for include wheezing, coughing during sleep, difficulties in breathing, and tightness in the chest area.

Your child may experience restlessness during sleep, flared nostrils, breathing through pursed lips, fatigue, breathlessness, vomiting and fast breathing.

There are also many audible warnings for asthma, including heavy wheezing, frequent throat clearing, and coughing without having a cold. It is important to watch out for all these signs.

In severe cases, the airways narrow so severely that your child is unable to breathe adequately, and this may lead to a potentially fatal situation.

These symptoms are caused by the narrowing of the air passages, resulting in reduction of air flow in and out of the lungs.

Studies show there is a consistent correlation between the quality of air and the severity of asthmatic symptoms. During hazy days, it has been proven that the increase in air pollutants reduces lung function by inflaming the lining of the lungs. The airways over-react to the trigger, and set off a number of changes that are associated with inflammation.

This explains the increased frequency of flare-ups and upper respiratory infections during hazy months.

Because asthma is a chronic condition, it cannot be cured and requires treatment with a combination of one inhaler for immediate relief and one preventer for long-term control.

A reliever medication is an inhaler that relaxes the airways, and is used whenever an attack occurs. A preventer is an inhaler which is used daily (even when there are no attacks) to reduce inflammation in the airways, thereby helping to prevent future attacks.

Therefore, it is extremely important for teachers and coaches to be aware of the potential risks that children with asthma face during hazy months.

Helpful hints

Physical education teachers can help their students participate fully and safely in sports by rescheduling physical activities to certain times of the day when the air is clearer.

If the level of pollution in the air is high, outdoor sports may be substituted with indoor physical activities, depending on how the child can cope.

Here are some helpful hints to shield your child against the haze:

  • Stay indoors as much as possible. Avoid any outdoor sports and activities to reduce exposure to pollution.
  • Watch the weather forecast. Many such forecasts give information on air quality index and other conditions that might affect your asthmatic child.
  • Try to keep your doors and windows closed. If you are using air-conditioning, clean the filters regularly to improve and maintain air quality at home.
  • If you need to go outside, remember that handkerchiefs tied over the nose and mouth are ineffective as the particles are fine enough to pass through normal cloth. Always use a mask when the haze is bad. It will block out fine haze particles and protect you from inhaling them. Change your mask when it becomes soiled or distorted.
  • If your child is facing eye irritation, then apply a few drops of saline solution (available at most pharmacies) to help relieve irritation.
  • Practise good hygiene through regular showers and frequent hand-washing when you step indoors.
  • Maintain hydration by drinking water regularly. Ensure your children get enough liquids and adequate rest.
  • Another good way to boost your baby's immune system is by breastfeeding. Breastfed babies generally have milder symptoms when it comes to ailments such as colds and flu.
  • Don't smoke, and stay away from smokers. Make sure you keep your child and yourself well away from smokers.
  • Stop wearing contact lenses when the haze is severe.
  • Keep your reliever or rescue medicine with you at all times. You can't always predict when you'll encounter a trigger, which is why doctors prescribe controller medications for children with asthma. Taking these medications as prescribed can prevent flare-ups and help you handle triggers better.
  • Lastly, talk to your GP about your child's asthma management plan. Having a personal action plan and following it will help you get your symptoms back under control.
  • Talk to your doctor or asthma nurse about getting one if you do not have one already. If this does not work, try looking at your child's medicines, triggers and lifestyle to see if anything can be changed.

As parents, we want the best for our children; therefore, avoid exposing your child to dangerous air pollutants in order to protect his or her little lungs, and life.