Thunderstorm asthma: be prepared

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Spring! Bees are busy making honey, your hay fever has gone crazy, and authorities are issuing thunderstorm asthma forecast alerts … Huh?

VicEmergency recently announced thunderstorm asthma alerts for areas including Central Victoria in response to last year’s freak weather conditions that caused the deaths of nine people. A further 8500 people across Victoria were treated in hospitals during that event, while others queued at medical centres and pharmacies for assistance. For many, it was their first asthma attack. So what is thunderstorm asthma? How do you know if you are at risk and what can you do to protect yourself? 

What is it?

Thunderstorm asthma occurs when there is a combination of a high rye grass pollen count and particular thunderstorm conditions. Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events, where many people develop asthma symptoms over a short space of time, are uncommon. Whole grass-pollen grains are usually too large to enter lung airways but can irritate the eyes, nose and throat, causing hay fever. Winds created in certain thunderstorms concentrate grass pollens at ground level. Some pollens burst open releasing tiny particles (allergens) small enough to be inhaled deep into the lungs. These allergens can trigger asthma symptoms such as wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing. Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events don’t happen every year, but can occur during grass pollen season, typically October to December.

Who’s at risk?

  • People who are allergic to rye-grass pollen.
  • People who have ever had asthma.
  • People who have ever had seasonal hay fever – especially those who experience wheezing or coughing with their hay fever. About one in four people with hay fever also have asthma. If you have hay fever and develop symptoms such as shortness of breath, wheezing chest tightness and coughing, see your doctor.
  • People with undiagnosed asthma. (People who have asthma symptoms but have not been diagnosed.)
  • People living in metropolitan, regional or rural areas who have never experienced asthma or hay fever. While not at high risk, these people may also be affected by thunderstorm asthma.

 Tips to stay safe

  •  Learn about epidemic thunderstorm asthma.
  • Follow thunderstorm asthma forecasts during grass pollen season. Download the VicEmergency appand set up a ‘watch zone’ for your location to receive warnings about potential epidemic thunderstorm asthma conditions. A high-risk (red) forecast means two conditions necessary for an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event are likely, but that such an event is not certain.
  • Get checked out. If you have ever had asthma or hay fever, or experience wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness or coughing, speak to your GP about your thunderstorm asthma risk.
  • Have your GP help you develop a personal action plan for your asthma or hay fever.
  • Take your asthma preventer regularly and ensure you have good control of your asthma. Having good control of your hay fever and asthma symptoms may give you better protection during epidemic thunderstorm asthma conditions. People with badly controlled asthma are also vulnerable to more common triggers such as respiratory illnesses, exercise, cold air and irritants.
  • Carry an asthma reliever (for example, Ventolin) with you. Check the expiry date. Asthma reliever puffers are available from pharmacies without a prescription.
  • Avoid being outside before or during thunderstorms from October to December. Stay indoors and close windows and doors.
  • Never ignore symptoms. Use your action plan and start asthma first aid immediately. Call Triple Zero (000) for help if your symptoms do not improve or worsen.

 Know the 4 steps of asthma first aid
(Click here to see the video.)

The Victorian Department of Health advises you follow these steps if you think someone is having an asthma attack:

  1. Sit them upright.
  2. Shake the blue or grey reliever puffer and give them 4 separate puffs - use a spacer if available. Click here to learn more.
  3. Wait 4 minutes and give 4 more puffs if the person cannot breathe normally.
  4. Call an ambulance (dial 000) if they still cannot breathe normally, and keep giving reliever puffs as before, until the ambulance arrives.