Thunderstorm Asthma: How Do You Prepare For An Airborne Killer?

Thunderstorm asthma is a weather epidemic killer and has scientists still questioning as to what causes it. But what we do know is that it is a freak weather event that triggers fatal breathing problems in even the healthiest of people and its season to strike is right around the corner.

In November, 2016, nine people died, hospitals became overcrowded and emergency rooms packed when nearly 10,000 people started experiencing severe breathing and allergy problems to the point where they needed to be hospitalised. This was in Victoria, Australia, and was all caused by the combination of a certain type of thunderstorm and pollen.

While only a few of these instances have happened around the world, namely in Europe, Australia and the Middle East, annual reports show that thunderstorm asthma occurrences are on the rise. Especially more since we are seeing an increase in wild weather patterns.

What causes this airborne epidemic and how can you prepare against thunderstorm asthma? Let’s take a look.

When thunderstorm asthma occurs

In many of the regular thunderstorm asthma areas, there is an annual grass pollen season. For America, this is from September to November and in Australia, it is October to December. This is when hay fever and seasonal allergies climb the most and when thunderstorm asthma is most likely to occur.

The problem is with this epidemic is that research is very limited as to what exact weather system causes thunderstorm asthma. From previous studies in Australia on its cause, it is said that when pollen is in season and in the air it interacts with specific weather conditions to amplify the effects the pollen has not just on allergy sufferers, but also people who generally don’t suffer from allergies. For those that do suffer pollen allergies and have asthma, the effects can lead to death in some circumstances.

 

Melbourne, Victoria, 2016: Nine people died as a result of thunderstorm asthma

 

What we know so far about thunderstorm asthma

Research conducted at the University of Georgia and Emory University and published in the Thorax research journal has shown a direct correlation between asthma-related hospital emergencies and thunderstorms in Atlanta, Georgia. This is as far as substantiated research goes when it comes to predicting when it can occur, but what we do know is that is can happen in the US as well.

What researchers do know is that there are specific storms that work with the pollen to magnify it, and some other storms that do not. But as to what exact storm type causes this natural phenomenon is something we are still in the dark about and they’re trying hard to figure this out, considering the international effect this problem has, and the fact that it could strike at any time.

The United States alone already has two million emergency room visits each year caused by asthma, so the effect of something such as thunderstorm asthma would be an overwhelming shock to medical treatment facilities in the country.

How you can prepare for thunderstorm asthma

At the moment, services and medical emergency alerts are notifying individuals to inform themselves about what to do in the case of an asthma attack. There is no knowledge yet of any different methods to prepare for a specific thunderstorm asthma except those that would be usually performed for a general asthmatic attack.

The emergency management authorities of Australia’s biggest thunderstorm asthma attack provide some simple preparatory steps that you can follow if you suffer allergies or are an asthmatic.

First, the symptoms of such an attack are:

  • Wheezing – high pitched sound coming from the chest while breathing
  • Breathlessness
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • A persistent cough.

The Victorian Government says everyone in the community should know the signs and symptoms of thunderstorm asthma and the four steps of asthma first aid, which are:

  1. Sit the person upright.
  2. Give four puffs of blue or grey reliever puffer. Make sure you shake the puffer, put one puff into a spacer and get the person to take four breaths from the spacer. Repeat this until the person has taken four puffs.
    Remember: shake, one puff, four breaths.
    If you don’t have a spacer simply give the person four puffs of their reliever directly by mouth.
  3. Wait four minutes. If there is no improvement, give four more separate puffs as in step 2. Remember: shake, one puff, four breaths.
  4. If there is still no improvement, call for an ambulance. Tell the operator that someone is having an asthma emergency. Keep giving the person four separate puffs of reliever medication, taking four breaths for each puff, every four minutes until the ambulance arrives.

If you are not sure if someone is having an asthma attack, you can still use asthma reliever medication because it is unlikely to cause harm.

An asthma reliever

Are you at risk of thunderstorm asthma?

To know if you are at risk of thunderstorm asthma, ask yourself or your family the following:

  • Do you have asthma?
  • Do you have asthma symptoms but have not yet been diagnosed with asthma?
  • Have you had asthma in the past?
  • Do you have spring hay fever (seasonal allergic rhinitis)?

If you are one of these people, you should:

  • Learn about epidemic thunderstorm asthma and what you can do to help protect yourself during grass pollen season
  • Where possible, avoid being outside during thunderstorms in the likely allergy seasons – especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows, and if you have your air conditioner on, turn it to recirculate
  • Have an updated asthma action plan
  • Have reliever medication appropriately available in grass pollen season and be aware of how to use it (ideally with a spacer)
  • Be alert to and act on the development of asthma symptoms as explained in your asthma action plan if you have one, or if you don’t, use asthma first aid.
  • If you have asthma symptoms see your doctor for advice

 

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