• Lightning strikes the city of Melbourne. (Getty Images/iStockphoto) (iStockphoto)
With Victoria and New South Wales on alert of severe 'thunderstorm asthma' warnings, we look at what's going on with our weather and exactly how it's affecting asthmatics?
By
Kemal Atlay

5 Dec 2016 - 9:17 PM  UPDATED 5 Dec 2016 - 9:17 PM

Residents in New South Wales and Victoria were issued new warnings of ‘thunderstorm asthma’ events today ahead of storms predicted to hit both states later in the day.

The National Asthma Council Australia warned people with asthma and hay fever to be on high alert for any symptoms and to have their asthma action plans ready as a precaution.

“As we have seen with the recent events in Melbourne any serious asthma attack can be life-threatening and have tragic consequences,” said council chair Dr Jonathan Burdon AM.

Last week, a New Zealand father-of-four, Sam Lau, became the eighth victim of the severe ‘thunderstorm asthma’ event that struck Melbourne two weeks ago.

This rare and extreme event triggered over 1900 calls to Ambulance Victoria and caused hospital emergency rooms across the city to be overwhelmed by around 8500 patients suffering from asthma-related symptoms.

“Act quickly if you start to have symptoms such as shortness of breath or wheezing,” Burdon said.

“The best way to treat thunderstorm asthma is to avoid it happening by making sure your asthma is under control and following your written asthma action plan." 

What is thunderstorm asthma?

Thunderstorm asthma occurs when a storm hits on a hot and windy day when there are high levels of pollen in the air.

When the storm front hits, the pollen grains to soak up the moisture in the air and ‘explode’ into smaller particles that are easily dispersed by the windy conditions.

Dr Brad McKay, a Sydney GP and host of Embarrassing Bodies Down Under, says that it is these smaller particles that cause problems in the respiratory tract.

“Rather than just breathing in rye grass pollen as large molecules that would get caught in your nose or in the top part of your lungs, these small molecules get all the way down deep into your lungs,” he tells SBS Science.

In the case of the Melbourne event, the main culprit was rye grass pollen, which is one of the main causes of hay fever, from pastures in the city’s north and west.

Has it happened before?

The recent thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne was the fourth such event to hit the city – the previous events occurred in 1987, 1989 and 2011.

Similar events have also been described in Wagga Wagga in southern New South Wales, as well as Naples in Italy and Birmingham and London in Britain.

What about hayfever?

According to Asthma Australia, around one in nine Australians have asthma, with 80 per cent of sufferers also experiencing hay fever.

It has also been found that a quarter of hay fever sufferers also have asthma, and that a survey of people who reported having asthma-related symptoms during the Melbourne event found that 90 per cent of respondents had “had hay fever symptoms in the last 12 months”.

McKay says that controlling hay fever symptoms can make asthma easier to control.

“If somebody has hay fever out of control that they’re not managing, that will make the asthma worse,” he says. 

What are the symptoms and how can you prepare?

McKay also explains that, like normal asthma attacks, symptoms include shortness of breath, coughing, and making a wheezing sound when breathing out due to the struggle of getting air out of the lungs.

“If it’s severe, people become very, very breathless,” he says. “They can become very distressed, and then if they’re not getting enough oxygen they can turn blue or pale, or collapse.” 

“If they’re having an acute attack, then they’ll need to be having a reliever such ventolin or salbutamol and having up to four to six puffs at one time through a spacer… and calling an ambulance if they’re not getting any relief.”

As pointed out by the National Asthma Council, people who suffer from asthma in any form should have written action plans that can be followed in case of an attack and are encouraged to discuss it with their GP if they don’t have one. 

But McKay says that Australian asthma-sufferers have become somewhat complacent in using their preventer on a regular basis as prescribed.

“Across the board, Australians aren’t really using our puffers as regularly as what we should be,” he says.

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