Remember the November 2016 Melbourne Thunderstorm Asthma event - nine deaths, 4000 emergency department presentations, more than 30 intensive care admissions and hospitals running out of Ventolin!
Warnings about sudden attacks of asthma during Thunderstorms are REAL. What makes them even more scary is that the biggest risk factor for developing Thunderstorm Asthma is pollen allergies and hay fever. Yes, hay fever. Is that you?
"It's important to know that many of those reporting to the emergency department in Melbourne did not have any pre-existing asthma!!! However a predisposition towards air allergy is a major risk factor; and these allergens generated by a storm have a high probability of causing respiratory events" says Dr Suzie Bekir, clinical director of Australian Allergy Centre and collective.care.
But What is Thunderstorm Asthma?
The science behind Thunderstorm Asthma is understood to be an interaction between climactic factors, air pollution and allergens.
Grass allergens can be found on the surface of the hundreds of starch granules within pollen grains. When it rains or is humid, pollen grains can absorb moisture and burst, releasing hundreds of small allergenic particles that can penetrate deep into the small airways of the lung (ASCIA).
The massive load of small allergenic particles being inhaled straight into the lung can trigger asthma attacks in people even without previous asthma but who experience hayfever and are often found to be allergic to rye grass.
With 1 In 5 Australians experiencing hayfever and growing grass allergies predicted, then the risk of this phenomenon is something our community should be made urgently aware.
Our Allergy Doctors have advised simple actions we can take to minimise the risk of weather-related asthma attacks.
HERE ARE 5 TIPS ON HOW TO PROTECT YOU AND YOUR FAMILY FROM THUNDERSTORM ASTHMA:
1. If you have not seen an allergy doctor about your hay fever symptoms then now is a good time.
Hay fever and pollen allergy is a risk factor for thunderstorm asthma. Therefore seeing a doctor to diagnose air allergies is the first step. Managing your hay fever and pollen allergy to prevent asthma is wise.
This doesn’t necessarily mean hay fever sufferers should be using long-term asthma medications such as daily preventative puffer medications. One can get an asthma attack during a severe thunderstorm even without any previous indications of asthma, and as this is probably a rare occurrence it is not necessary to take daily medication.
If you need to make an appointment you can call 1300 344 325 for our Bella Vista allergy clinic.
2. Stay indoors.
If you know you have pollen allergy keep out of the way of allergens. So, stay indoors during rain and wind periods, especially the first 30-60 minutes when the allergens are most prevalent.
3. Take your asthma medication (as prescribed by your GP) during a thunderstorm, even if you are not feeling unwell as it may prevent or reduce the severity of the asthma attack.
4. Consider allergy prevention.
For those with significant pollen allergy one should consider discussing desensitisation with your allergy doctor. Hay fever treatments such as antihistamine tablets and steroid nasal sprays may provide some relief.
Medications are most useful if taken prior to an expected thunderstorm. However, as thunderstorm asthma is due to allergens reaching the lower parts of the lung and nasal sprays target the nose, you may still get an asthma attack.
5 . Keep pollen count aware.
Keep updated on local pollen counts and weather forecasts. Local pollen apps can help!
And most importantly: don't hesitate to call for help quickly.
As the small allergen particles generated in thunderstorms are very easily and quickly able to penetrate deep into the lungs, these asthma attacks can progress very quickly; call 000 if you feel the beginnings of an attack.
Therefore, if you have trouble breathing during a spring storm, even if you do not have asthma, call 000 for help.
About the author:
Dr Suzan Bekir MBBS (hons1) FRACGP is a GP medical educator and Clinical Director of collective.care, Australian Allergy Centre, Taylor Clinic and Dr Ink Tattoo Removal.
She runs an accredited GP Special Skills training program for Allergy, ENT, Skin, Laser and Cosmetics. She was instrumental in creating the GP shared.care Clinical Model of collective.care specialist clinics built for primary health care and designed for the Health Care Homes of the future. She is also a medical content creator for Brand-Aid.