From September to January, grass pollen season is upon us in Australia. This is generally in the first months of spring and summer where typically pollen from dry Rye grass is caught by the wind and carried through the air to metropolitan areas.
Unfortunately, grass pollen season corresponds to a higher chance of thunderstorm asthma, which is caused by a higher pollen count in the air than normal combined with certain types of thunderstorm conditions.
The south-east suburbs of Melbourne were an epicentre for thunderstorm asthma cases in a freak occurrence of epidemic thunderstorm asthma in 2016. Though these events are rare, we still need to be aware of how quickly they can take a turn for the worse and what we can do to prevent tragic fatalities.
What is thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma is a weather phenomenon that starts with pollen grains being absorbed into the clouds as a thunderstorm starts to form. The pollen absorbs water, grows and breaks open into tiny particles containing pollen allergens, which are circulated over a wide area by powerful wind gusts. These particles are so small that they can be breathed into the lungs, where they trigger an allergic reaction.
Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events occur when a large number of people, including those who have not been diagnosed with asthma before, are affected by this pollen allergy over a short period of time, resulting in numerous medical emergencies and some fatalities.
On November 21 2016, the world’s largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event occurred in Melbourne, killing ten people and initiating almost 8,500 hospitalisations with its unprecedented size and severity. At 35 degrees Celsius, it was the hottest day of the year for the state since March and the combination of high temperatures with serious thunderstorms led to an 147 per cent rise in calls for paramedics and emergency assistance.
October through to December are the worst months for grass pollen season and epidemic thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne, so being vigilant and prepared with an asthma action plan in these dry conditions is important.
What are the symptoms of thunderstorm asthma?
At the time of a thunderstorm asthma event, people who suffer from hay fever or other pollen-related allergies may experience an increase in their symptoms of a runny nose, blocked sinuses, itchy eyes, headaches, sneezing and shortness of breath.
Those who have asthma may also find that their coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath and chest tightening symptoms are occurring more frequently and severely.
Both allergies severely affect respiratory health, to a point where people struggle to breathe normally and can succumb to their symptoms.
Who is at risk of thunderstorm asthma?
People at risk of thunderstorm asthma include those who presently suffer from asthma and/or seasonal hay fever, had either allergy in the past or are dealing with other health problems related to their breathing.
Even if you don’t think you have asthma or hay fever – or haven’t been diagnosed – it’s important to be aware of whatever your respiratory risk may be, however small. Dismissing wheezing or shortness of breath as temporary symptoms may increase your chances of developing a case of thunderstorm asthma in the next weather event.
Just to be on the safe side, a check-up with your local GP can help to understand your personal risk and develop a plan for when symptoms begin to worsen during grass pollen season.
What can you do to help prevent thunderstorm asthma?
Being aware of your personal risks when it comes to thunderstorm asthma is key to reducing the symptoms before they take a turn for the worse.
Some tips to help prevent thunderstorm asthma include:
- Take your preventer medication as advised by your GP, especially during September to December or if you are in an area with ryegrass pollen nearby
- Ensure you carry your reliever inhaler/ blue puffer with you at all times
- Keep an eye on alerts for pollen counts and weather events
- Put together an action plan with your doctor, detailing what to do if you experience any symptoms of thunderstorm asthma
- Stay indoors before and during thunderstorms, especially if it is windy at the start. If you are out, stay in your car with the windows up and turn the air conditioner onto recycled/recirculated air
When grass pollen season arrives every year on the Mornington Peninsula, stay alert for Thunderstorm Asthma by identifying the symptoms, keeping watch of the weather or seeing your local GP. For more information, visit here.