by Gerald B. Goldstein, M.D.
Most of us in Arizona are much enamored with the dry hot climate here in the southwest. In fact, many people move to this area for the beneficial effect of the climate on their respiratory disease and arthritis. However, as the old adage goes, one man’s meat is another man’s poison, and that seems to hold true for climate as well. Over the years, I have seen many patients where low humidity is a contributor or is the sole cause for symptoms relating to the skin, eyes, and respiratory system. I would like to discuss some of these problems briefly, as well as to mention some of the measures that may be taken to help with relief of discomfort.
Dry, flaking, itchy skin is a common problem in Arizona. The medical name for the condition is xerosis, and elderly people are affected most often. The term “winter itch” has been coined because the dry heat from the furnace in winter lowers humidity further and accentuates the problem. Dry and itchy skin may sometimes cause intense scratching, bleeding, and infection. The most helpful treatment is to apply moisturizer ointments such as Eucerin and similar over-the-counter preparations. Moisturizers may be applied any time of the day or night, but they are most effectively used following a bath. If skin inflammation is present, your doctor may wish you to apply a steroid cream to the skin as well.
Although there may be some itching associated with dry eyes, the main complaints are those of burning, tearing, and a sensation that there is sand or dirt in the eyes. Eye discomfort accentuated during windy weather which causes more evaporation of the tear layer. Patients with contact lenses are particularly uncomfortable. Dry eyes do not respond well to allergy drops, but will improve with artificial tear lubricants such as Tears Natural, Bion, and Hypo Tears, to name a few. Avoid being out during windy weather, if possible. A humidifier in the bedroom at night and in the office during the day may help as well.
Presenting symptoms in this case may include dry, burning nasal passages with crusted nasal secretions, and sometimes nasal bleeding. Other discomfort includes thick post-nasal discharge and headache in the sinus areas. Moisture serves to protect the nose and sinuses, so that patients with dry membranes are more susceptible to nasal and sinus infection. One often hears that patients feel better when exposed to the humidity of a shower or in a steam room, and they also are improved when visiting damper areas of the country. While air conditioners act as humidifiers, evaporative coolers are better for nose and sinus conditions because they add moisture to the air. A bedroom humidifier may need to be used at night for most of the year, and saline nasal washes should be used often during the day. The older antihistamines with their drying properties should be used sparingly or not at all.
It should be noted that the above low-humidity problems may be present alone or in combination with typical pollen, mold, or animal dander allergy. If the patient is to be optimally comfortable, then both conditions need to be addressed. Unfortunately, fighting the climate is a difficult task, but most people can derive improvement if they are consistent in adding humidity to their environment where and when it is needed.
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