What is Thunderstorm Asthma?
Thunderstorm Asthma was first recognized and studied in the 1980s after there were three recorded events that occurred in Birmingham, England (1983) and Melbourne, Australia (1987 and 1989). Since then there have been many reports all over the world. The most deadly incidence of Thunderstorm Asthma was in Melbourne, Australia in 2016 that resulted in at least 9 deaths, overwhelming local hospitals and emergency medical personnel. It was estimated that between 20% and 40% of those affected had never been diagnosed with asthma prior and therefore weren't receiving any asthma treatment before the thunderstorm hit. There was also a similar instance in Kuwait in December of 2016 where 5 people died as well as many ICU admissions.
The cause behind thunderstorm asthma
The theory behind Thunderstorm Asthma is that during a storm, pollen can absorb moisture and then break apart into much smaller fragments and be inhaled into the lungs easier than “normal sized” pollen particles can which are normally filtered and mostly blocked by the hairs inside the nose. However, there is no experimental evidence that has been done to prove this theory. These smaller particles that are inhaled can cause an asthma attack in a person who has never had an attack before, which is an interesting piece of the puzzle. It is thought that it is the airflow patterns, not the electrical activity (lightning), rain or thunder that causes these sharp rise in asthma attacks. When the wind whips up quickly it causes an intense increase in particles of mold spores, pollen etc to be swept up into the clouds where the humidity is and then released down in the rain in much higher concentrations. Since the allergens are vastly increased in concentration and can cause severe asthma attacks in those who have allergies/sensitivities to certain allergens.
Thunderstorm asthma seems to occur mostly in the spring and summer months during the traditional storm season. Those with grass and mold allergies as well as those with hay fever are effected more than those without, however it is not a prerequisite.
It has been studied and shown that the amount of grass pollen and mold trapped in a thunderstorm’s wind and outflow is between four and twelve times higher than elsewhere.
Instances like the ones I discussed above that resulted in deaths and hospital overcrowding are very rare. However, it is not uncommon to notice an increase in asthma symptoms during thunderstorm activity. If you do find your asthma worsening during these conditions it is important to try to protect yourself from exposure when necessary. Make sure to discuss this with your doctor and come up with a plan. Try to avoid going outdoors during a thunderstorm and also try to avoid outdoor activities or prolonged time outside for 24-48 hours following a thunderstorm because the pollens and spores will still be in the air. Keep your doors and windows closed and enjoy the storm from inside.
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