August 28, 2019

Thunderstorm Asthma Explained

Photo of a Thunderstorm

It’s true. Thunderstorm asthma really does exist!

Not all thunderstorms are created equal though, so don’t fear an asthma flare-up every time you hear a thunder clap. This a relatively rare phenomenon that occurs when a variety of factors create a perfect storm of asthma-inducing, swirling pollen particles.

A patient with asthma experiences inflammation and narrowing of the airway, making it difficult for air to flow through the lungs. This can result in coughing, difficulty breathing, and chest tightness. Asthma triggers include anything from pollen, dust, and mold to stress and exercise.

Thunderstorm asthma is a unique event that can occur when there’s a high pollen count (most often during the spring). The pollen particles get drawn into the storm clouds, where they absorb moisture and pop, turning the already small pollen grains into miniscule pieces that float along with the wind. Because they’re so small, they can easily be inhaled and cause an asthma attack.

Grass pollen and mold are the most likely culprits of thunderstorm asthma, although tree and weed pollen can also be behind this. While people with asthma and/or these specific allergies (especially if they are not well-controlled) are most at risk of thunderstorm asthma, anyone could be susceptible.

How can you minimize your risk? Once an allergist identifies your allergy or asthma triggers and prescribes medications to manage your issues, be sure that you take your medicine as instructed, staying especially vigilant during the seasons your triggers are most active. Keeping everything under control is your best bet. Also, watch the weather and allergen reports. If the day’s forecast calls for high pollen counts and thunderstorms, stay indoors as much as you can. The high winds that precede thunderstorms should definitely be avoided.

There have been no reported widespread thunderstorm asthma occurrences in the US. However, researchers believe this phenomenon can and does happen here. Hospitals may just not attribute a relatively small uptick in asthma attacks to thunderstorms.

The most widely reported thunderstorm asthma outbreak happened in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2016 (which is spring there). Grass pollen counts were high that day, and many people were enjoying the great outdoors. After the afternoon thunderstorm rolled in, hospitals were inundated with asthma cases. Nine people died, and nearly 10,000 sought treatment in a hospital.

Now is a great time to become educated on thunderstorm asthma and how best to prevent it. Scientists report that climate change may cause longer pollen seasons and more powerful thunderstorms, resulting in an increase in the number and severity of thunderstorm asthma incidents.