Asthma is a common lung condition that causes occasional breathing difficulties due to narrowing, swelling and inflammation of the airways with excess mucous production and symptoms such as chest tightness and/or pain, shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.
If you suffer from asthma or allergies, thunderstorms could pose a serious threat to your health. Initially reported in the 1980s in Australia and England, “Thunderstorm asthma” cases have continued to rise across the globe. Just after the passage of severe thunderstorms through Melbourne, Australia, in 2016, more than 9,000 individuals sought urgent medical care for asthma. Healthcare facilities were overwhelmed and more than eight individuals lost their lives. Therefore, understanding this trigger is important before it takes your health by storm.
What is thunderstorm asthma?
The term ‘thunderstorm asthma’ refers to a weather phenomenon wherein an attack of asthma begins or worsens after a thunderstorm. It can occur in any asthmatic but most often impacts individuals with allergic rhinitis, commonly known as seasonal allergies or hayfever (allergic reaction to pollens).
Seasonal allergic conditions are often heralded by sneezing, coughing, itchy red or watery eyes, and a runny or blocked nose and are usually worse in the summer, early autumn, or spring. Other symptoms include an itchy throat, mouth, ears, and nose, loss of smell, pain in the forehead and around the temples, headaches, fatigue, and earaches. The symptoms of thunderstorm asthma are the same as hay fever or seasonal allergies but are much more severe.
The pollen season usually occurs between late March and late September. Rain reduces pollen counts by cleansing the air, due to which the monsoon season tends to decrease allergy-triggered asthma symptoms; however, thunderstorms could worsen asthma worse with a distinctive sequence of events:
- Cold downdrafts concentrate air particles like mold and pollen
- The air particles are swept up into clouds in regions of high humidity
- In the clouds, humidity, lightning, and wind break up the air particles to much smaller and highly potent particles (known as super pollen) such that they can readily enter the nose, air sinuses, and pulmonary (lung) tissues.
- Wind gusts concentrate these small particles and therefore, large amounts of the air particles can be inhaled.
What raises the risk of experiencing thunderstorm asthma and how is it treated?
According to a recent study published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 65% (144 out of 228) individuals with seasonal allergies reported experiencing thunderstorm asthma and many of the asthma attacks triggered by thunderstorms were not mild. Nearly 50% of the individuals who experienced an asthma attack sought emergency medical care at hospitals. Thunderstorm asthma can be treated with the same medicines that are usually used to treat hay fever and asthma, such as antihistamines, nasal sprays and inhalers and, eye drops.
What steps can be taken to reduce the effects of thunderstorm asthma?
There are several ways by which asthma and hayfever sufferers can protect themselves against the most intense effects of thunderstorm asthma which are as follows:
- Use preventative medications such as nasal sprays and eye drops on a regular basis.
- Always carry asthma inhalers.
- Talk to your doctor to make sure your written asthma action plan is up to date and includes thunderstorm advice.
- Wear protective sunglasses when outdoors to prevent pollen from entering the eyes.
- Stay indoors just before and during thunderstorms, especially during wind gusts before the rain.
- Remain inside a car or a building with the windows shut for as long as you can during stormy weather.
- Use air conditioners or purifiers if possible, and have them set to recirculate or recycle.
- Shower regularly, especially after being outdoors, to eradicate pollen from your hair.
- Be updated with the pollen counts and weather forecasts during the spring and early summer seasons seasons to know about potential storms.
To conclude, thunderstorm asthma can have a profound and devastating impact on asthmatics and trigger asthma attacks which could prove to be fatal.