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Expert explains Australia’s freak ‘thunderstorm asthma’ after 3 deaths

A rare – and incredibly worrying – phenomenon was experienced in Melbourne earlier this week. Thunderstorm asthma is a term many are now familiar with, knowing that three young Australians died because of respiratory complications caused by the storm.

Calls made to Victorian ambulances spiked on Monday, with an average of one call every four seconds. The deaths of Omar Moujalled, Apollo Papadopoulos, and Hope Carnevali have sparked significant concern, and many people are just wondering “what the heck is thunderstorm asthma anyway?”.

We spoke to Janet Davies, who leads the Allergy Research Group at the Queensland University of Technology. She is also the Principal Investigator leading the Australian Pollen Allergen Partnership, working with several organisations including the Bureau of Meteorology and Asthma Australia in order to actively research pollen allergies including thunderstorm asthma, and to increase public awareness about future incidents.

The two biggest factors that contribute to ‘thunderstorm asthma’ are a high pollen count, and adverse conditions (like the high winds and rainy conditions in Melbourne this week).

Janet Davies broke it down for us:

“In the very unfortunate incident that we saw on Monday evening in Melbourne…on a high grass pollen count day, you get a very high amount of pollen coming in from the rural regions that is transported into the urban area on the wind.

And in a thunderstorm you get a concentration of the allergens and it kind of intially rises up into the atmosphere and then a downdraft, where large amounts of cold air carrying pollen allergens…get dumped down in a particular region where thunderstorms [occur].

So, two things happen. You’ve got that concentration effect, but also in the presence of water and electrical energy, the pollen grain which carries the allergen inside will burst open, so whilst the pollen grain itself is reasonably large and you can’t breathe it into your lungs, the particles inside the pollen after it’s been broken up turn into several hundreds of tiny little allergen-loaded particles and they’re small enough to be breathed in.”

For those who don’t have asthma or hayfever, this might not seem like a huge deal. But I have mild asthma and I have a tough time on bushfire days, or when walking near cigarette smoke. A forceful wind blowing small, irritating particles directly into the lungs of anyone is a massive cause for concern.

In fact, Davies went on to explain that 20% of the patients treated during the ‘thunderstorm asthma’ hadn’t had asthmas before. “People who have never had asthma before, or might’ve had mild asthmas or allergies, are experiencing really acute inflammation and constriction of their lungs,” She pointed to similar incidents which occurred in 2010, 2011, and 2001, around the same time of year, almost to the day.

Clearly, there’s a recurring pattern and contributing factors which we don’t fully understand yet, but there are preventative measures that Davies advises.

  • Take antihistamines on high pollen count days.
  • See a pharmacist. There are over-the-counter nasal sprays or antihistamines available. If they don’t work, see doctor who may refer you for allergen immunotherapy treatment.
  • Have an Asthma action plan. Use preventatives, and avoid becoming complacent.
  • Stay indoors, and close your car windows when driving.
  • AusPollen is doing incredible research into monitoring pollen counts, which they’ve developed into a series of city-specific apps. If you feel like you’re sensitive to adverse events like ‘thunderstorm asthma’, check the pollen count daily.

    FYI, here’s the Sydney forecast:

    Screenshots from the pollen count app

    About the author

    Larissa is Techly’s Assistant Editor. She watches so much Youtube that she’s narrowed down her favourite categories – goats, innocent dads getting pranked, and toddlers falling over.

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