On the 21 November 2016, there was a freak asthma thunderstorm in Melbourne that resulted in more than 8500 people seeking medical treatment by Melbourne doctors in emergency departments and sadly, 9 people died. This was a tragic and unforeseen event that caused many people, including those who had no history of asthma or respiratory issues to experience mild to severe breathing difficulties. While this was not the first such event that has occurred in the world, Australia or even the city of Melbourne, the severity of this particular event has sparked greater discussion, education and awareness about thunderstorm asthma since it happened. To tell you the truth, many people didn’t even know what it was before this event, and some people still don’t.
What is Thunderstorm asthma?
On the most basic level, thunderstorm asthma occurs when there is the perfect, yet deadly mix of pollen and humid, windy conditions, causing breathing problems for a large number of people in a very short period of time.
But of course, it is a bit more complicated than that. As hayfever sufferers know quite well, early October through to late December is a time of constant itchy, runny and red noses and itchy, watery eyes. This is also the most common time for thunderstorm asthma to occur because there are high levels of pollen in the air. When a big thunderstorm hits, the grains of pollen absorb moisture, explode into masses of tiny particles and are scattered across long distances as strong winds blow them close to the ground. As these particles are inhaled deep into the lungs, it causes the lungs to become irritated. In turn, this irritation can cause swelling, narrowing and extra mucus production in the small airways in the lung and then a full-blown asthma attack.
Who is at risk of thunderstorm asthma?
Those who are at most risk of experiencing thunderstorm asthma are those who have been diagnosed with asthma, suffer from hay fever (particularly seasonal hay fever) or are allergic to grass pollens. What is also important to note is that people who have had past or undiagnosed asthma are also at extremely high risk because they are unaware that they may be affected, which could end up being detrimental. In the 2016 asthma thunderstorm in Melbourne, 40% of people that were affected were not diagnosed asthmatics.
What are the symptoms of thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma presents the same symptoms as an acute asthma attack. Someone who is suffering from this will most likely experience:
- Wheezing – a high-pitched whistling sound made when you breathe, heard most clearly when exhaling
- Shortness of breath
- Chest tightness
- A persistent cough
For prevention, am asthma reliever needs to be used hours before the storm occurs, otherwise, there is potential for your condition to worsen.
How can you prepare for thunderstorm asthma?
While it is extremely difficult to predict an asthma thunderstorm event, there are a few things you can still do to be prepared and minimise chances of harm.
First and foremost, if you have already been diagnosed with asthma, your doctor should already be your first point of contact. It is important that you discuss the possibility of thunderstorm asthma with them and include this in your asthma action plan. To minimise chances of harm, you should continue taking your asthma relief/preventer medication as prescribed (especially during the period of October to December), make sure you carry it with you at all times and know the signs of worsening asthma.
Additionally, whether you suffer from asthma, hay fever or both, by being aware of weather forecasts (and pollen counts if you want to get super technical) you can try to avoid being outside and head indoors with doors and windows closed until the storm has passed. If there are signs that yours or another person’s condition is deteriorating, urgent care should be sought by calling 000. Signs of rapid deterioration include little or no relief with the use of your reliever puffer, inability to speak comfortably, or if their lips are turning blue.
Southbank doctors at Southgate Medical can help you prepare for asthma thunderstorms and ensure your asthma action plan is up to date. To find out more information, book a consultation with one of our expert Southbank Doctors or call us directly on 03 9690 1433.