Hayfever sufferers warned on thunderstorm asthma

heavy clouds

People who suffer from hayfever should consider carrying a Ventolin puffer at all times – especially if thunderstorms like last night’s are expected, an asthma expert says.

Associate Professor Cenk Suphioglu, the Deakin environmental allergist who discovered the link between rye grass and thunderstorm-related asthma epidemics, says that thunderstorm asthma is an allergic reaction to grass pollen and people don’t have to be asthmatic to get it.

“Thunderstorm asthma is a condition brought on when storms play havoc with pollen,” A/Prof Suphioglu says.

“It affects people who don’t normally suffer from asthma or respiratory problems – many thunderstorm asthma sufferers have never had an asthma attack before – and particularly those who suffer from hay fever.

“It’s this surprise element that makes thunderstorm asthma so dangerous and leads to people heading straight to the emergency department – as we saw last night.”

Two people died, hospital emergency departments were inundated and St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne ran out of Ventolin puffers last night following a severe storm.

Yarraville’s Carnovale Pharmacy and Brunswick’s Tambassis Pharmacy were two of the pharmacies who had their work cut out for them assisting a huge influx of customers seeking relief from asthma.

A/Prof Suphioglu says that thunderstorm asthma is a rare phenomenon caused by a perfect storm of weather conditions and airborne allergens.

“Studies have shown that more than 95% of thunderstorm asthmatics are allergic to pollen and rye grass pollen,” he says.

“There are a few key ingredients that combine to cause thunderstorm asthma epidemics. Firstly, a high or extreme pollen count, which is what we’ve had this year.

“Significantly, the pollen count was listed as ‘extreme’ yesterday, with more than 100 pollen grains per cubic metre of air sampled.

“We’ve had a lot of rain, which means there’s a lot of grass, which means there’s a lot of pollen. We’ve also had windy conditions, which plays a role in dispersal and carriage of pollen over distances to impact on humans.

“We know that intact pollen grains cannot cause asthma. But when the pollen grains encounter sudden rainfall or moisture, like what happened yesterday when the thunderstorm came in, the pollen grains suddenly burst in the air and released the particles that irritate the airways.”

A/Prof Suphioglu says that the thunderstorm asthma epidemic is not new.

“Melbourne has the dubious honour of being both the allergy and thunderstorm capital of Australia, with November the peak month for thunderstorm asthma,” A/Prof Suphioglu says.

“These combined factors have made Melbourne the thunderstorm asthma capital of the world, with three recorded epidemics in 1987, 1989, and 2010.

“After the 1989 epidemic, I began researching the links between pollen – particularly rye grass pollen – hay fever, and asthma.

“Just like people with food allergies carry an EpiPen, I believe that hay fever suffers should consider carrying a Ventolin puffer, especially if thunderstorms are predicted after a bout of hot weather.”

He encouraged health stakeholders to learn more about the AIRwatch system, which yesterday showed a high risk of thunderstorm asthma, based on the weather conditions.

“AIRwatch is a network of two air sampling stations – one at the Waurn Ponds campus and the other at the Burwood campus,” A/Prof Suphioglu says.

“Samples are taken daily during September to March – hay fever season in Melbourne – with daily forecasts of the amount of pollen in the air and the likelihood of thunderstorm asthma both listed on the website.

“The forecasts cover a 20 – 50 kilometre radius of the campuses, making the website a great source of information for not only Deakin students and staff, but also the community.”


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