On a dark and stormy night, the sky lights up just after the thunder rolls, and I reach for my rescue inhaler. Sometimes I'm sure it is pure coincidence that my breathing isn't so great but it turns out there is a link between thunderstorms and increased asthma symptoms. Flipping through the news lately it looks like I'm not the only one. A recent thunderstorm in Melbourne, Australia killed several people and sent numerous other asthmatics to the hospital.1
For over 30 years researchers have been studying thunderstorm asthma trying to better understand how and why thunderstorms induce spikes in asthma symptoms.1 The leading theory that is yet unproven is that thunderstorms suck up pollen and redistribute it as finer than normal particles that can be inhaled deeper into the lungs.1 Normally pollen particles are large enough to be filtered out before they reach your lungs by the hairs in your nose.2 This seems like a plausible hypothesis to me, after all getting a trigger deeper into your lungs is never a good thing. I wonder if this means that only those asthmatics with an allergic component to their asthma are affected by the thunderstorm phenomenon.
Another factor that may impact how thunderstorms affect asthmatics is climate change. Increased carbon dioxide in our atmosphere is increasing the potency of the pollen that plants produce.2 A more potent trigger that is easier to inhale into the lungs would explain how some people have such severe asthma attacks during thunderstorms. This is an effect of climate change I would not have expected. I would not have expected to have global warming impact me in such a personal way.
One study found that thunderstorm asthma attacks are more common in those who are not taking inhaled corticosteroids, which are common daily preventative inhalers.3 This makes some sense to me that those who aren't on daily controller meds most likely have intermittent asthma. Thus they would likely be caught off guard by sudden symptoms. Hopefully, they are able to recognize their asthma worsening and remember the steps on their action plan to follow if a thunderstorm triggers an asthma attack. This study also found a correlation between thunderstorm asthma and having hay fever or grass pollen allergies.3 The airway inflammation was consistent with allergen exposure for those experiencing thunderstorm asthma.3 It is interesting that a small study confirms the allergen connection with thunderstorm asthma.
Hopefully, there is additional research and progress made to confirm the causes of thunderstorm asthma. That way we can work to better control the symptoms for asthmatics. Or at least better predict when a city is likely to have a thunderstorm that will increase asthma symptoms. For me, it is certainly scary to think that a thunderstorm could potentially instigate asthma symptoms that are unexpectedly severe or possibly even deadly. I hope that science will bring us the solutions we need to prevent additional spikes in asthma hospitalization from thunderstorms. Have you experienced asthma symptoms from thunderstorms?
Does cold weather impact your asthma?