Thunderstorm asthma - things you should know

Following the unprecedented thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne last week, where hundreds of people were hospitalised, dozens placed in intensive care, and 8 people have tragically died, here are some quick tips your doctor wants you to know about thunderstorm asthma and how you can try and prevent it.

1. You don’t need to have been previously diagnosed with asthma to suffer from thunderstorm asthma. People with pollen allergy, especially rye grass allergy, or those who suffer from hay fever are at risk of allergic reactions that can cause their airways to contract in situations like these, due to the large load of allergenic particles reaching the lungs.

2. Thunderstorm asthma is believed to be caused by several factors, including increased humidity before a storm, which can cause pollen grains to break apart and release tiny starch granules. A single pollen grain can contain hundreds of much smaller starch granules, all of which can be breathed into the lungs more easily than larger intact pollen grains.

3. Symptoms of thunderstorm asthma can come on quickly and include shortness of breath, wheezing, tightness in the chest and coughing.

4. If you have symptoms of wheezing every spring, see your doctor for advice.

5. Make sure your asthma action plan is up to date.  If you have asthma, have your action plan regularly reviewed, so that in the case of worsening symptoms, you can take early and immediate action to prevent or reduce the severity of an asthma attack.

6. Prevention is better than control. If your asthma is poorly controlled you will be more at risk of an asthma attack. Regular use of your preventer medication, as directed by your doctor, may help prevent an attack.

7. Melbourne and Wagga Wagga are 2 places in Australia particularly at risk of thunderstorm asthma due to the large grasslands nearby. Spring winds gust over these grasslands, depositing large amounts of pollen, such as perennial rye grass pollen, on the cities. A perfect situation for spring storms, caused by a cool change, to wreak havoc.

8. Follow the pollen count. There are pollen counts published for all major Australian cities. Follow the pollen counts if you suffer from pollen allergy or seasonal asthma, so that you can avoid exposure as much as possible and take preventive medication. Wagga Wagga has an email/SMS alert system that notifies you on high-risk days. Your city may too.

9. Stay inside. If pollen is a trigger for your asthma, limit your exposure by staying inside with the windows and doors shut around the time of thunderstorms, and on windy and high-pollen count days. 

10. Always carry your reliever medication with you, even when you’re feeling well.

11. If you have difficulty breathing, call 000 for an ambulance immediately.

Last Reviewed: 23 November 2016
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