ABU DHABI // When you have a migraine coming on, do you reckon it's about to rain? Your friends probably scoff - but you might well be right, doctors say.
Neurologists have long believed that hot weather brings on migraines. Fluctuations in barometric pressure, which is exerted by the air around us, are also proven headache triggers.
There has been a steep drop in barometric pressure in the past week, according to the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology. Such drops indicate the passing of a hot front and often precede a rain storm.
So it is little wonder that Maysoon Barber, 27, suffered severe headaches in the days before it rained early last week.
"I had a severe headache and facial pressure, which is what a lot of people describe as their sinuses," said the Syrian communications and PR co-ordinator, who lives in Abu Dhabi. Mrs Barber does not usually suffer from sinusitis and did not think she was susceptible to weather-related health problems.
"I had discomfort in my chest and a slight dizziness whenever I bent down or leaned over," she said. "When the weather cleared up later in the week, my headaches disappeared."
Dr Osman Yusuf, consultant neurologist at a private clinic in Dubai, has heard similar complaints from patients in the past week, most of whom suffered from severe headaches.
"Patients have been complaining of throbbing headaches that increase in pressure as the day goes on, and many think it is a sinus headache triggered by allergies," he said.
What the patient is actually suffering from, he said, could be a barometric pressure migraine.
"There is a theory that migraines are due to dilation of blood vessels caused by pressure changes. Vessels dilate in all cases, regardless of the cause, but we think the barometric receptors in the brain, which regulate blood pressure when you stand up or change position, might also be affected by atmospheric pressure changes," Dr Yusuf said.
So as the pressure drops outside, these receptors are activated and cause vasodilation in the head, or headaches.
Doctors have also been reporting a surge of patients with allergy-like symptoms during the dusty and hazy weather of the past week.
The symptoms include a blocked or runny nose and coughing and breathing difficulties, as well as headaches and pressure in the face, which indicates sinus problems.
Dr Malek Makarem, a family medicine consultant at the Gulf Diagnostic Centre Hospital in Abu Dhabi, said the symptoms were "a clear reflection of weather conditions". Unsettled weather is common in March, April and May due to the transition from winter to summer, according to a spokesman at the National Centre for Meteorology and Seismology.
However, a severely blocked or runny nose, incessant sneezing and difficulty breathing does not necessarily mean patients have seasonal allergies, according to Dr Ken Malanin, head of the dermatology and allergology division at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City in Abu Dhabi. His department runs routine allergy tests to help doctors to diagnose what type of allergies a patient might have, whether respiratory or otherwise.
Although it may feel like allergy season, not all complaints are allergy-related, he said. Allergies is "a commonly misused and misunderstood word".
When patients are suffering from sneezing bouts and cold-like symptoms after exposure to smoke, incense, perfume or even windy weather, their symptoms are irritations to these stimulants, which results in a reaction in their mucus membranes.
"If that patient is suffering these same symptoms because a cat was just on their lap, that is different, that is an allergy," Dr Malanin said. "An allergic reaction can occur during pollination season, when a patient may be allergic to a specific plant, but if it is just dust and the weather, this is not an allergy."
Dr Malanin recently presented the differences to doctors in Abu Dhabi.
"There is a lack of education in this country among doctors, and patients as well, when it comes to how to deal with allergies, or if the symptoms are allergies in the first place," he said. "Doctors need to know the difference in order to know how to treat it."
Dr Bassam Mahboub, vice president of the UAE Respiratory Society, said at least 15 per cent of the country's residents suffer from asthma, meaning the current hazy conditions from blowing dust make it especially difficult for some people to catch their breath.
David Nasser, 27, from Egypt, said: "My asthma always flares up at this time of year, and I am forced to head to the emergency room at the hospital sometimes because I really feel like I cannot breathe."