Haze-induced illnesses: What they are and can they kill

MALAYSIA - First of all, you have to understand what the haze is. The haze is an atmospheric condition where particles, smoke, dust and moisture suspend in the air. The more of these particles, smoke and dust there are, the less visible our environment will be.

The haze is only one of the "horizontal obscurations" that we have in the world.

The World Meterological Organisation classifies horizontal obscuration into different categories: fog, ice fog, steam fog, mist, haze, smoke, volcanic ash, dust, sand and snow.

A "haze" may be produced by open burning (what is occurring now), farming (if you plough the fields in dry weather), pollution from traffic (it seems that there is a permanent haze in Los Angeles, for example), and smoke from industry and wildfires (like what occured in Australia a few years ago).

What kind of diseases can I get from the haze?

You can get a spectrum of diseases involving your respiratory tract as you breathe in those particles, and your eyes, which is exposed to the environment.

You can get :

· Conjunctivitis or inflammation of the eye.

· Nasal irritation, causing you to produce a lot of mucous and start clearing your throat excessively, or sneeze and cough.

· Throat irritation, leading to a sore throat, which in turn can produce mucous and clog up your pharynx area.

· Lung tissue inflammation and scarring. At high levels of the haze, you may start to cough and even feel breathless. At lower levels of pollution, people with a pre-existing lung or heart disorder may start to feel breathless and cough.

So if your loved ones or friends have conditions such as asthma, heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, you should make sure they stay indoors as much as possible and avoid the haze.

It is stated that if the API goes from 50 to 150, you can see a 12 per cent increase in upper respiratory tract diseases, a 19 per cent increase in asthma cases, and a 26 per cent increase in nose inflammation.

How would I know if the haze is affecting me?

You may start to experience these symptoms. These are usually short-term. Look out for:

· Watery or irritated eyes.

· Actual reddening, itchiness and inflammation of the outer lining of your eyes (conjunctivitis).

· Runny nose, stuffy nose, sneezing.

· Post-nasal drip (where the mucous from the back of your nose drips into your throat, causing irritability, soreness and cough, especially at night when you are trying to sleep).

· Sore, dry and irritable throat, which you have to keep clearing.

· Coughing.

· Headache and dizziness.

· Fatigue and the feeling of malaise.

· Mental irritability and the feeling of being stressed out.

· Difficulty breathing, especially on exertion, because your lung function has decreased.

· Bronchitis and lung infections.Most of these symptoms are usually mild. They will get better if you stay indoors and do not expose yourself to the haze.

My elderly father has chronic bronchitis. Will the haze affect him more than me?

Yes. You have to be very careful with your loved ones or friends suffering from lung and heart diseases, including asthma (especially for children).

If you have asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) like chronic bronchitis or emphysema, obstructive sleep apnoea and heart diseases like coronary artery disease or heart failure, be very careful.

You may have acute exacerbations of your existing conditions. For example, if you have asthma, the haze can actually induce an acute attack, which you may have to manage by rushing yourself to the emergency department of the hospital. Will the haze have any long-term effects, like lung cancer?

Particles emitted by forest fires can be toxic to the lungs. They can penetrate deep into the lungs and get absorbed by the blood stream.

Studies have shown that people exposed to the haze (fine particles) frequently experience a faster thickening of their arteries, and this reduces life expectancy by a few years.

Long-term exposure to particles 2.5 micrometers or smaller can increase your risk of developing diabetes.

For pregnant mothers, be extra careful, because this is associated with spontaneous abortion, birth defects and high infant death rates.

It is not known at this stage if the risk of lung cancer is higher.

Dr YLM graduated as a medical doctor, and has been writing for many years on various subjects such as medicine, health advice, computers and entertainment. For further information, e-mail starhealth@thestar.com.my. The information contained in this column is for general educational purposes only. Neither The Star nor the author gives any warranty on accuracy, completeness, functionality, usefulness or other assurances as to such information. The Star and the author disclaim all responsibility for any losses, damage to property or personal injury suffered directly or indirectly from reliance on such information.