As Australians we are all aware of the dangers of storm season. But have you ever heard of thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma can affect you even if you don’t usually suffer from asthma or hay fever. Read this quick guide to find out more and speak to your doctor if you have concerns.
Who can get thunderstorm asthma?
Anyone can get thunderstorm asthma. It can affect you whether you live in a city or a rural area. You are at a higher risk if you have:
- a history of asthma
- undiagnosed asthma
- hay fever (especially if it’s seasonal)
- an allergy to grass pollen.
What is thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma is triggered by an unusual combination of high amounts of pollen and a particular type of thunderstorm. These factors are most likely to occur 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, runny nose, watery eyes, and so on. 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.
Do I need to worry about all thunderstorms?
Not all thunderstorms in pollen season create these conditions. Be aware of thunderstorms developing on days where the pollen count is described as ‘high’ or ‘extreme’. You can keep track of the pollen count in different areas of Australia by checking 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.
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.
Be vigilant during storms
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.