In course of the three days following Diwali, Delhi has acquired a new moniker -- gas chamber. Residents of Delhi and people who have had the misfortune to visit it in the past couple of days, have been waking up to a thick shroud of smog. Almost everyone complained of itchy and watering eyes, cough and a dry, burning sensation in the nasal tract. Alarmingly high levels of PM 2.5 and PM 10 in the air have been held responsible for the same.
Though no public health advisory has been issued by the Delhi government yet, there is a spike in the number of people going to doctors for respiratory problems. Children and elderly people above the age of 60 are considered to be most vulnerable to this pollution. "There are at least 15-20 children under 5 years coming to me every day, complaining of wheezing, cough and cold, as well as a lack of sleep," Dr. Gaurav Jawa, Paediatric Neonatologist at Apollo Cradle Royale, Nehru Place said. "None of them can be blamed on flu because they do not have fever and their parents have similar symptoms." Jawa describes this as Reactive Airway Disease, which resembles asthma but is a reaction to pollutants.
"In the long term, specific toxins in the air can spread disease like cancer, COPD and asthma," Dr Ashish Jain, Senior Consultant at Max Super Speciality Hospital said. "If you are exposed to these for a prolonged time, lung capacity and exercise tolerance goes down and there is an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and heart attacks."
Doctors have prescribed some steps to reduce possibilities of falling sick due to the pollution. However these steps are only a short-term measure to alleviate the symptoms. "The ultimate protection is via government when they issue specific policies to keep pollution under control," Dr Jain added. "These measure are only knee-jerk reactions."
Exercise indoor rather than outdoor
If you are an exercise enthusiast, it is better to work out at the gym or do yoga indoors instead of cycling or jogging. If you must go outside, avoid strenuous exercise in the open. "If anyone is having respiratory trouble or cough and cold due to pollution, any physical activity can worsen their symptoms," Apollo's Dr Gupta said. "It even prolongs the recovery."
Avoid spending time outdoor in the morning and evening
Pollution levels are at their highest early morning and at night especially after 8 pm, when the air is thicker and heavier. It is safer to head outside between 12 and 5 pm, when the sun is at its brightest.
This is especially important for young kids, who should be kept indoors as much as possible until the smog lifts. "Avoid taking them outside to play, keep them inside," Max's Dr Jain adds.
Choose buses and the Metro over autos
A closed bus or metro is better than travelling in an open auto which exposes you to more pollutants. If you travel by car, use the air conditioner rather than rolling down your windows.
Use air conditioners and exhaust fans instead of opening doors and windows
Doctors advise against leaving doors and windows open. Instead, use an air-conditioner or exhaust fan for ventilation as this helps with continuous circulation of air while filtering it to some extent. However, make sure that your AC filters have been recently cleaned.
Keep yourself hydrated
It is important to keep yourself hydrated by drinking at least 2-3 litres of water a day, especially if you are suffering from respiratory ailments. "When your nose is blocked and respiratory track is irritated, you tend to breathe much faster and through your mouth, drying out your tract," Dr. Gaurav Jawa of Apollo Cradle Royale, Nehru Place said. "Drinking adequate water will wash off the impurities at the back of the throat and avoid dryness of respiratory tract."
Inhale steam and gargle
Doctors advise people suffering from respiratory irritation to inhale steam a couple of times a day to clean out their respiratory tract. Saline gargles also have a soothing effect on the throat, while washing your face after coming home from the outdoors helps ease the burning sensation in eyes.
Masks and air purifiers help -- but only to some extent
If you or your family members are already suffering from respiratory ailments or allergies, air purifiers can provide relief for some time though their effectiveness remains debatable. Make sure that they are equipped with HEPA (high-efficiency particulate air) filters, which filter PM 2.5 particles.
However, doctors differ on the effectiveness of masks. According to Dr. Jawa masks may help kids who have a propensity to asthma, cough and cold, but Dr Jain says that surgical and N95 masks can be counter-productive if used incorrectly. "They are expensive and have a short life of six to eight hours, after which they should not be reused," Dr. Jain said. "They also need to be used in a specific way and no one is trained for that. Also, oral secretions can get deposited on them, making the masks less effective. The dust which is deposited can even be inhaled back. There is not scientific data that proves that these masks should be used by people at large in case of air pollution."
Have antioxidant-rich foods to boost your immunity
"Fresh fruits and vegetables, especially greens, boost your immunity, while processed can hamper it," Dr. Shubhra Gupta, MD, Internal Medicine Physician , Apollo Clinic, Faridabad said. "Take plenty of amla and citrus fruits, which really boost your immunity and reduces cough and cold."
Monitor air quality through apps
You can check air quality levels in your part of the city through various apps to minimise exposure to pollutants when you step outside. The Indian government's SAFAR-Air app lets you view current and PM 2.5 and PM 10 levels in different parts of the city, as well as the forecasts for the next three days. You can compare these readings with the air quality index of the Plume Labs app, which tracks changes in readings on a weekly, monthly and annual basis. It also provides readings for ozone, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide apart from particulate matter.