Vikas, 37, and his wife moved to Gurgaon from Bangalore last year and since then the couple has been suffering from recurrent cough and cold. When they consulted a private multi-specialty hospital last week, they were diagnosed with cough variant asthma — a milder form of asthma.
Both IT executives and non-smokers, Vikas and his wife do not have family history of asthma. They never imagined that cough could turn into a milder form of a respiratory disease.
“I have been seeing many such patients complaining of cough and cold and other respiratory problems these days. It is primarily because of the rising pollution levels in the city,” said Dr Himanshu Garg, head of respiratory critical care at Artemis Hospital. He is the couple’s doctor and has advised them to avoid smoke and dust. He hasn’t been able to point out the exact cause for their condition.
Doctors say that increasing pollution in Delhi-NCR has been leading to a steep rise in cases of respiratory diseases, especially in the younger age group. As the temperature drops and Diwali begins, when people burst firecrackers, doctors suggest avoiding dust and smoke that can lead to allergies.
During the season, burning waste in open intensifies the harmful effect of smoke on one’s health more than any other emission, experts say. This is because while industries or vehicles use filters, open burning does not have any filters for the harmful smoke produced.
Burning of horticulture waste and smoke from firecrackers coupled with smog during the winter forms a deadly combination of pollutants that may also contain carcinogens.
According to doctors, these factors increase the number of respiratory illness cases by at least 20%-25% during the peak winter.
Studies suggest that open burning of solid waste emits pollutants including carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, particulate matter, nitrogen oxides, sulfur dioxide and dioxins or furans.
“Benzopyrines from burning of horticulture waste can cause lung cancer. It is equal to smoking bidi. Some of the chemicals in smoke cause increased clotting leading to heart attack and strokes or paralytic attacks,” Dr Sanjay Mehta of Artemis hospital said.
Burning leaves can spark health problems as the moisture in leaves burns slowly, generating large amounts of airborne particulate matter. These particulates reach deep into lung tissue and cause coughing, wheezing, chest pain, shortness of breath and sometimes long-term respiratory problems.
People in extreme age groups — senior citizens and children — should stay away from such smoke. Those suffering from asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes must also avoid going outdoors when waste is being burnt.
“People who suffer from asthma or allergic disorders of the respiratory system have increased symptoms during this particular time of the year. Change in weather causes the temperature to vary drastically before and after sunrise compared to when the sun is out,” Dr Satish Koul, internal medicine, Columbia Asia Hospital, said.
With the mercury levels dropping, pollutants tend to remain suspended and the effect is worse with their increased levels due to bursting of crackers, Koul said.
Some of the precautions that one can take include avoiding exposure to acute change in temperature, keeping oneself well covered, particularly the chest, avoiding dusty and polluted conditions and drinking plenty of fluids.
“Those with low immunity levels must get vaccinated for flu before the season starts,” Garg said.