In November, 2016, the harsh winds and driving rain of a spring storm in Melbourne overwhelmed emergency responders with thousands of 911 calls and patients pouring into the ER. But instead of being caught up in flood waters or injured by flying debris, these thousands of Melburnians were all suffering from acute respiratory symptoms known as thunderstorm asthma.
Outbreaks of thunderstorm asthma seem to require a specific set of circumstances, and don’t occur every time there’s a storm.
- A survey revealed that only 58% of the affected people in Melbourne had been previously diagnosed with asthma, but the vast majority suffered from allergic rhinitis.
- Pollen grains usually cause nasal irritation like sneezing and a runny nose, but these particles are usually too large to enter the lungs.
- The most accepted hypothesis explaining thunderstorm asthma is that these grains are stirred up by storm drafts and then ruptured when they come into contact with water.
- Ruptured grains of pollen are then small enough to penetrate the lungs, and may travel with the wind and rain causing a widespread outbreak of symptoms.
- Another theory about thunderstorm asthma suggests that a storm’s electricity charges allergen particles, making them more likely to remain in the lungs when inhaled.
How often does thunderstorm asthma occur?
Although most people had never heard of thunderstorm asthma before Melbourne’s 2016 event, this wasn’t the first reported occurrence.
- The first modern case of thunderstorm asthma occurred in the UK in 1983, and subsequent episodes have occurred in the UK, Canada, and Australia.
- Thunderstorm asthma is considered to be a rare event, although climate change could lead to a future with more pollen in the air and more severe storms.
Preparing for Thunderstorm Asthma
- People with poorly controlled asthma or allergies to pollen and grass are at a higher risk for developing thunderstorm asthma. Take control of these conditions by developing a year-round prevention plan with your doctor.
- Stay indoors when a thunderstorm is approaching. Even before rainfall, strong gusts of wind could be circulating large quantities of pollen and other irritants.
- Keep updated with weather networks and warning systems. The Australian province of Victoria recently initiated a new monitoring and warning system meant to give people up to three days warning when thunderstorm asthma conditions are forming.
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