On November 21, 2016 a thunderstorm swept across southern Australia causing significant, widespread respiratory issues for many of those in the area. These health problems were triggered by a rare combination of risk factors causing what is known as “Thunderstorm Asthma.”
According to a 2016 article by CNN’s James Griffiths and Reed Alexander published just days after the event, the state of Victoria’s emergency services received over 1,900 calls in less than four hours, and eight victims lost their lives.
This eye-opening phenomenon garnered international media attention and raised significant awareness for this strange and dangerous occurrence, but the potential for another event in the future continues to loom.
The news stories created an ongoing need for dialogue between physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists, pharmacists, governing bodies, and asthma patients surrounding this concerning topic.
Educating Patients on the Causes
As physicians and therapists, it’s vital to make patients aware of and help prepare them for a potential Thunderstorm Asthma attack.
This requires sharing a definition of what the phenomenon is and what to expect in a simple, straightforward manner that patients can easily understand. According to the National Asthma Council of Australia:
“Thunderstorm asthma is a potent mix of pollen and weather conditions that can trigger severe asthma symptoms in a large number of people over a short period of time.”
Once thoroughly defined, it’s time to talk about causes and potential risk factors. As stated in the Better Health Channel’s video on the topic above:
“Pollen grains from grasses get swept up in the wind and carried for long distances. Some burst open and release tiny particles that are concentrated in the wind, just before the storm. They’re small enough to go deep into the lungs and can make it difficult to breathe. This can become very severe, very quickly.”
The stormfront, essentially, breaks down the larger pollen particles into much smaller pollen particulates which can reach far into a person’s lungs. According to Asthma Australia, this can result in a “runny nose, itchy throat, watery eyes, and sneezing.”
Providing patients with a firm understanding of how these rare conditions of high pollen combined with severe weather conditions (often from late spring to early summer) can affect their airways will help them identify their warning signs quickly and with more certainty.
Thunderstorm Asthma Prevention Methods
For those with chronic or seasonal asthma or hay fever, the symptoms of Thunderstorm Asthma pose a serious and potentially fatal threat.
This makes it vital to not only make patients aware of potential dangers but also educate them on methods of prevention, such as:
- Updating asthma action plans for seasons of high pollen
- Keeping an eye on daily Thunderstorm Asthma Forecasts (for those in Australia)
- Staying indoors with windows and doors closed while the stormfront passes (if possible).
- Considering asthma reliever inhalers when appropriate.
Public awareness campaigns are key to limiting the effects of the next Thunderstorm Asthma event in your community. Here are a few additional Thunderstorm Asthma resources to help guide your efforts.
For Health Professionals
- Thunderstorm Asthma Online Learning Tools: (https://www.nationalasthma.org.au/health-professionals/education-training/thunderstorm-asthma)
- Thunderstorm Asthma Information Paper: (https://www.nationalasthma.org.au/living-with-asthma/resources/health-professionals/information-paper/thunderstorm-asthma)
- Thunderstorm Asthma Flowchart: (https://www.nationalasthma.org.au/living-with-asthma/resources/health-professionals/information-paper/thunderstorm-asthma-pharmacy)
Other Severe Asthma Treatment Strategies
If you’re in need of additional severe asthma treatment strategies, GINA recently published a 2018 Diagnosis and Management of Difficult-to-Treat and Severe Asthma in Adolescent and Adult Patients Report.
The goal of this document to provide a practical summary for health professionals about how to identify, assess and manage difficult-to-treat and severe asthma in adolescents and adults.
It is intended for use by general practitioners (GPs, primary care physicians), pulmonary specialists and other health professionals involved in the management of people with asthma.