Understanding thunderstorm asthma this storm season could save your life or your loved one.
Thunderstorm asthma can be serious for people with asthma, though it can still affect people who do not usually suffer from asthma. People who suffer from hay fever can also be affected, as well as those who are not diagnosed yet with either condition.
Here is a quick guide to find out more, however, please speak to your doctor should you have any concerns.
What is thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma is triggered by an unusual combination of high amounts of pollen and a rare type of thunderstorm which usually happens in late spring or early summer.
As with any asthma attack, it can be severe or life-threatening, so it’s important to call triple zero (000) for emergency help if someone is suffering from asthma and having trouble breathing.
How does it happen?
If you get seasonal hay fever in Australia, it’s most often caused by grass pollens. These pollen grains are quite large and get caught in your upper airways, causing sneezing, a runny nose and watery eyes, for example. However, because the pollen grains are large, they don’t travel all the way down into the lower parts of your lungs.
Thunderstorm asthma can happen when much smaller pollen grains are breathed deeply into the lungs. Here’s how researchers believe it happens:
- A certain type of thunderstorm sweeps grass pollen grains up into the clouds on a high-pollen day.
- Once inside the cloud, the grains absorb moisture.
- The swollen grains then burst, releasing large amounts of smaller pollen pieces (one grain can produce up to 700 smaller particles).
- The small particles are blown down to ground level.
- When they’re inhaled, the particles can make it into the lower lung. In some people, this can cause swelling, extra mucus production and narrowing of the airways in the lung. This can make it difficult to breathe and cause asthma symptoms such as tightness, coughing and wheezing.
Source: NSW Health.
Who can get thunderstorm asthma?
If you have asthmas or hay fever (sneezing, itchy eyes or nose, dry cough) you may be at risk of thunderstorm asthmas. You are at a higher risk if you have:
- a history of asthma
- undiagnosed asthma
- hay fever (especially if it’s seasonal) or you wheeze and sneeze during spring
- an allergy to grass pollen.
How can I check pollen levels?
Not all thunderstorms in pollen season create conditions for an asthma thunderstorm. Take note of thunderstorms on days where the pollen count is described as ‘high’ or ‘extreme’. This can be checked at the Pollen Forecast website.
What precautions can I take?
Although it is difficult to predict a thunderstorm asthma event, there are steps you can take to prepare yourself.
Before and during a thunderstorm on a high or extreme pollen day:
- stay indoors with windows and doors shut to avoid inhaling pollen particles
- follow your asthma action plan
- know the signs of asthma and call for emergency help immediately if you or someone you’re with is deteriorating.
- have your inhalers handy
- call 000 in an emergency
Talk to your doctor
If you have asthma, suffer from hay fever during pollen season, or suspect you may have asthma, talk to your doctor about thunderstorm asthma. Depending on your situation, your doctor can advise you on:
- asthma diagnosis
- adding thunderstorm asthma steps to your asthma action plan
- preventer medications
- reliever medications
- hay fever medications.
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