Thunderstorm Asthma: Is It a Real Thing?
Most people associate asthma attacks more with exposure to allergic triggers, cigarette smoke or strong fumes or orders. I have to admit, when I first read about "thunderstorm asthma," I was pretty skeptical. I have never experienced it myself, that's for sure.
But, apparently, asthma attacks really can be triggered by severe weather changes, such as thunderstorms. Who knew? Having said that, though, it's likely that the media may have over-hyped some incidences of thunderstorm asthma epidemics at times. It's still a fairly rare thing.
How Weather Can Affect Asthma
Allergic asthma is the most common type of asthma. The same things that can trigger allergy symptoms can also trigger asthma symptoms, including:
- Tree, grass and weed pollens
- Dust mites
- Pet dander
- Insect droppings
People with allergies and asthma often look forward to rainy days because rain tends to wash pollen and outdoor mold spores out of the air. But, when rain is accompanied by certain atmospheric conditions, the result can be an increase in asthma attacks. This may happen even among people not known to be affected by allergies or asthma in the past.
You might think it's the thunder and/or the lightning that is the culprit, but in fact that's not true. Board-certified allergist, Dr. Annie Arrey-Mensah, describes how thunderstorm asthma really works:
"It is the airflow patterns in thunderstorms and not the electrical activity, thunder itself or rain that trigger asthma epidemics. Thunderstorm outflows are created by downdrafts of cold air. These drafts concentrate particles of pollens and mold spores and then sweep them into the high humidity of the clouds. They are broken down into small, respirable fragments, which are released by rain. Because these allergens are highly concentrated, they can cause severe asthma attacks in patients who are sensitized to the various allergens."
Both this physician and other studies emphasize that asthma attacks from thunderstorms are more likely in the following types of people:
- Those who are already experiencing airway symptoms from allergies
- People who have poorly controlled asthma
Some Research Findings
There have been a number of studies that have looked at this phenomenon, especially after an event in Melbourne, Australia in 2016 that resulted in 8500 ER visits and 9 deaths related to asthma. Although to date this type of event has been rare, with climate change, we may see it happening more often.
Another researcher suggests that chemical air pollution may also present a risk during thunderstorms because of the air patterns present. Again, this is more likely in people whose airways are already compromised by allergies and asthma.
What Can You Do to Stay Healthy During a Thunderstorm?
Well, obviously, you can't do much to prevent Mother Nature from wreaking her havoc. And it's not realistic to think you can move to an area where there are never thunderstorms, although some areas are definitely more prone to them than others.
Here are a few things you can do:
- Make sure to follow your treatment plan and always have your rescue inhaler on hand before, during and after thunderstorms.
- If you've noticed your symptoms worsening during severe weather, consult with your health care team about modifying your Asthma Action Plan as needed.
- Do what you can to avoid outdoor activities within 24 hours after a thunderstorm or rain shower.
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