What Is Thunderstorm Asthma?

Is thunderstorm asthma an asthma subgroup? Well, not really. However, there is clear evidence that thunderstorms trigger asthma and allergy symptoms. Here’s all you need to know.

I, your humble author, was sitting on the couch with my six-year-old son watching Evan TV Videos during a thunderstorm. As we were doing this we were enjoying a cool, refreshing, and sometimes damp breeze from the open front door. The breeze was a cool, refreshing break from the heat and humidity of the past few days.

But, then your humble authors eyes started to feel itchy.

He started to sniffle and sneeze. His chest started to feel tight. Yes, the prototypical chest tightness I explained in my post, “Links Between Chest Tightness And Asthma.”

He looked over at his son, who had a ball of snot shining under his nostrils. Your humble author ripped a tissue from a box on the table to his left, and handed it to son, who took it and nonchalantly wiped away the snot.

Then I remembered about Thunderstorm Asthma. It was pouring out. Thunder was rumbling in the distance. The temperature broke. The humidity broke. All this was fine by me. But the sniffling and sneezing was not. It must be, I decided, my Thunderstorm Asthma.

I actually looked into this a few years ago.

Researchers have investigated it for years following reports by physicians of upticks in asthma patients following thunderstorms. In one study, researchers searched for articles in various databases for the terms thunderstorm and asthma, and only came up with 35 articles from between 1983 and 2004. However, they generated enough evidence to support the need for further research. 1

Respecting this evidence, a group of climatologists and epidemiologists put together the largest study ever conducted on this issue between 1993 and 2004. The study results were finally released in 2008, showing that, yes indeed, there definitely was an uptick in asthma related ER visits the day after thunderstorms -- a three percent uptick, to be precise. 2-3

This inspired the aeroallergen theory.

A theory was postulated that the downpour of rain during thunderstorms pounds on grass and plant pollen, causing them to rupture and release their contents, which include “paucimicronic starch particles.” These are microscopic particles that are easily aerosolized. The downdraft of of cold air causes wind that carries these particles into the air around you, and they are easily inhaled, traveling all the way down to your smallest airways. 1-3

Other than pollen, other “aeroallergens” have also been studied, such as fungus. In another study, the uptick the various fungi studied ranged from 3-fold to 12 fold. However, these studies were not as specific as the ones studying links between airborne pollens and thunderstorms, so this emphasizes a need for further research. 1

A significant majority of the asthmatics diagnosed with Thunderstorm Asthma in these studies tested positive for hay fever or allergies, either pollen or fungal spores, depending on the study they were involved in. So, this sort of adds to the thunderstorm aeroallergen theory.

Pollen is a ubiquitous asthma trigger.

Even if you are inside your home you can easily inhale these microscopic aeroallergens, especially if you have your doors and windows open to enjoy the cool, refreshing breeze.

And, of course, that is exactly what I am enjoying at this precise moment. While we couldn't see them as we sat on the couch moments ago, aeroallergens were probably swirling around the air around my son and me, and we were unwittingly inhaling them. My eight year old daughter, who is also in the room, remains symptomless.  

Ironically, just after I wrote that last sentence, my 14-year-old asthmatic daughter and my non-asthmatic wife entered the home. My daughter says, sniffling, “I really feel missable all of a sudden.”

My wife was symptomless. Good for her. She must have good genes. My eight-year-old does have asthma (and maybe worse than all my other children), although she apparently doesn’t have Thunderstorm Asthma. It was apparent to your humble author here that the rest of us in this home do have Thunderstorm Asthma.

Is thunderstorm asthma an asthma subgroup? 

Thunderstorm asthma is not a subgroup of asthma, and if it were we’d probably have to give it a more professional name, like Thunderstorm Induced Asthma.

Apparently, given the current theory, if you suffer from Thunderstorm Asthma, you have hay fever. I don’t like the term hay fever, as it implies hay allergy. Even John Bostock, the physician who introduced the term hay fever to the medical community in 1819, knew the name “hay fever” was inappropriate, although the term had already been used for years, so the term kind of just stuck.

Ironically, even though researchers know very well hay fever is an inappropriate term, many still use it. A more specific cause of hay fever is pollen allergy. You can have a pollen allergy and not have asthma. When you have it with asthma, you might have a diagnosis of Allergic Asthma, which is what I have. So, I digress. 

However, this is just a theory.

If you do not have allergies and still suffer from asthma symptoms, it’s possible this theory is wrong. After all, this is just a theory. That in mind, researchers have a study currently ongoing to study this more in depth. So, perhaps someday soon we’ll have more information to report on Thunderstorm Asthma.

For the record, I had these symptoms despite being on some of the best asthma controller medicines. I take a daily dose of Advair and Singulair. So, I think this is the reason my symptoms are so mild. I'm pretty confident they will subside with time, so I'm not even going to treat myself. So, it would seem, based on my own experience with Thunderstorm Asthma, that the best treatment for it is probably to work with your doctor on obtaining ideal asthma control.

After I wrote this article I realized that fellow asthmatic and asthma writer Kat described her experiences and what she learned about, "Thunderstorm Asthma." She actually described a couple more theories explaining this phenomenon. So, if you're interested in learning some more on this interesting topic, you can click on over and see what she had to say.

But first, before you go, I have one favor to ask. If you have experienced Thunderstorm Asthma yourself -- or even think you might have, please share your experience in the comments below. Thank you! Enjoy the rest of your day.


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