In November 2016, a freak thunderstorm, in Victoria, tragically claimed the lives of 10 Australians, but not in the way you’d expect. Instead, the culprit: grains of grass pollen that had burst into the tiniest of particles. They were carried by the winds before the storm and due to their size were inhaled deeper into the lungs of the victims, triggering severe asthma symptoms.
This weather event and subsequent medical crisis shone a spotlight on how easily symptoms can be exacerbated for asthma sufferers (that’s 2.9 million Australians!), the desperate need for sufferers to have asthma action plans (currently only 20 percent of suffers do) and how it can affect those who have never had an asthma attack.
In search of a better understanding — also considering 1 in 9 Australians are asthmatic — we reached out to Dr. Aifric Boylan who admits that even with well-controlled asthma an attack can still occur in certain weather conditions. In the case of thunderstorm asthma, breathing difficulties as a result can also impact people who have never been diagnosed with asthma.
In the case of thunderstorm asthma, breathing difficulties can also impact people who have never been diagnosed with asthma.
“It may bring on a person’s first asthma attack,” says Dr. Boylan. “People who already have hay fever are more at risk, especially if they have occasionally felt a little bit wheezy with their hay fever in the past.” Making it important, even for hay fever sufferers, to have an action plan in place, including access to an inhaler, particularly if they live in areas where thunderstorm asthma has occurred in the past.
There’s little difference between a thunderstorm asthma attack and a regular asthma attack, both are terrifying. Symptoms for each include wheezing, coughing, breathlessness and a sense of tightness in the chest. However, Dr. Boylan admits that these symptoms can come on quicker, be more unexpected and can be more severe than usual during a thunderstorm asthma attack.
It’s recommended you have your asthma and hay fever under control at all times, particularly during pollen season (note: this can change based on your location). “It is worth speaking to your doctor about your asthma and hay fever control, and having an asthma action plan in place,” says Dr. Boylan. “If you’re getting asthma symptoms at night, or if you need your reliever (such as Ventolin) more than two to three times a week (aside from pre-exercise use) this means your asthma is not fully controlled. You need to speak to your doctor about increasing your preventive asthma inhalers or medication.”
According to Dr. Boylan, if they have one, follow their asthma action plan. If symptoms seem severe or sudden or there’s no reliever inhaler/puffer available call triple zero (000).
If their inhaler/puffer is available:
- Sit the person upright.
- Shake the puffer, and spray one puff into their spacer (if they have one) and ask them to breathe deeply 4 times.
- Repeat this process until 4 puffs have been taken, remembering to shake before each puff. If they have not got a spacer, they should take 4 puffs directly from their inhaler, one at a time.
- If there’s no obvious improvement, call an ambulance on triple zero (000).
- The person should continue to take 4 puffs every 4 minutes until the ambulance arrives.