THE Hungry Ghost Festival usually means getai performances and auctions but, for some, it also marks the start of visits to the doctor.
Doctors my paper spoke to said they have seen a greater number of patients during this period seeking treatment for ailments such as asthma, eye irritation, and nasal and skin allergies.
During the month-long festival – which lasts till Sept 7 – the Chinese pay respects to their dead relatives by burning joss sticks and incense paper.
Dr Clarence Yeo from the Killiney Family and Wellness Clinic in Killiney Road said he has seen roughly 20 per cent more patients suffering from such symptoms since the festival began on Aug 10.
Dr Madeleine Chew, the managing director of mobile medical-care service MW Medical, said she has seen 10 to 15 per cent more patients coming down with conjunctivitis and viral illnesses since the start of the festival.
As for Dr Alvin Wong of Well Family Clinic and Surgery in Ang Mo Kio Avenue 10, he saw about 10 per cent more patients recently. He added that many of them complain about shortness of breath due to pre-existing conditions such as asthma or other lung diseases.
Still, Dr Wong said that his “patients actually pinpoint the festival as the cause of the problem”.
“They tell me that when they pass by a place where offerings are being burnt, they can feel their chests constricting, causing them to use an inhaler more frequently,” he said.
Dr Yeo said it is not unusual for doctors to see such symptoms arising from the burning of joss sticks and incense paper.
However, he told my paper that it is difficult to link the symptoms directly to the festival, as other factors, such as a patient’s susceptibility to illnesses, need to be considered.
Make-up artist Vannessa Barker, 27, said the smoke and ash in the air this year led to a flare up of asthma and eczema.
She complained of itchy skin and chest tightness, and said: “I haven’t used my inhaler in years but I had to use it this time round.”
She added that many people had left their food offerings and burnt paper all over the floor at the void deck of her Housing Board block in Hougang.
“It’s really bad for the environment... Right now, there’s nothing much I can do except to close the windows,” she said.
Banking executive Melissa Ng, 25, said she has been hit by bouts of cold and pimple outbreaks since the festival began.
“I find myself sneezing repeatedly throughout the day because I breathe in all the ash flying in the air. It aggravates my sinus problem and makes me feel so uncomfortable,” she said.
The National Environment Agency (NEA) said on its website that the Pollutant Standards Index (PSI) – a measurement of air quality – has remained largely constant.
The PSI stood at 28 on Aug 15, compared with a PSI of 23 two weeks prior.
Air quality is considered unhealthy when the PSI goes beyond 100.
Town councils provide drum cylinders or purpose-built concrete pits for residents to burn their offerings, but some people still regard the sharing of bins as a sign of disrespect to their ancestors.
A report in The Straits Times last year said that the NEA receives an average of 55 complaints a month from across the island about residents who burned their offerings in the open. During the Hungry Ghost Festival last year, more than 100 such complaints were received.
When asked how people can cope with the ailments, Dr Yeo advised them to avoid the areas of burning as much as possible.
“Patients can also turn on the air-conditioning at home or buy air purifiers,” he said.
Dr Chew suggested the use of medicines such as over-the counter antihistamines to help minimise allergic reactions.
Surgical masks do not really help, Dr Wong noted, as they do not filter out the particles causing the ailments. Those with respiratory problems should use an N95 respirator mask, he said.
If you are suffering from eye irritation, take along saline eyedrops so that you can periodically rinse particles from your eyes, he added.