What Is Thunderstorm Asthma?

Thunderstorm asthma is a weather-based condition that can turn pollen and wind into a dangerous duo.

Asthma affects your bronchial tubes, where air goes in and out of your lungs. During an asthma attack, those tubes narrow, and that makes it hard to breathe. A mild asthma attack might last only a few minutes, but stronger ones can last hours or even days and need serious medical treatment.

Thunderstorm asthma is when heavy storms hit on a day with a very high pollen count, usually during the spring, and cause symptoms of an asthma attack.

Grains of pollen get sucked into the storm clouds. Once those grains take in a certain amount of water, they pop, making even smaller grains. Those smaller grains get into the wind at ground level. There, they can be breathed in easily. That can lead to asthma attacks.

It most often hits adults who have asthma or hay fever or are allergic to grass pollen. But it can cause problems for anyone, even if you don’t have those things.

Where It Happens

Cases of thunderstorm asthma that affect large numbers of people are rare. They’ve been reported across Europe, Australia, North America, and the Middle East.

No major outbreaks have happened in the U.S., but researchers in Atlanta found that a few more people in their area go to the emergency room with asthma-related symptoms during thunderstorms -- about 3% more than usual.

Scientists are trying to figure out the specific conditions that could lead to a large outbreak in this country.

Symptoms

The signs are like those caused by a typical asthma attack:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Fast breathing
  • Tight feeling in your chest
  • Coughing and wheezing

If you don’t have asthma and notice any of these, call your doctor.

Anyone who has any of these things happening should get medical help right away:

  • The skin around your breastbone or ribs gets sucked in when you breathe in.
  • Your face, lips, or fingernails turn very pale or blue.
  • Your chest doesn’t relax when you breathe out.

Continued

Treatment

People who have asthma and have a mild attack should follow their regular action plan. That usually means taking two to six puffs of a quick-acting inhaler (also called a rescue inhaler) to help open your airways.

For a more severe attack, if you’re so short of breath that you can’t speak, then take the two to six puffs of a quick-acting medication, then get medical help right away.

If you don’t have a rescue inhaler or are having a serious asthma attack, your doctor probably will give you medicine through an inhaler or a nebulizer, which changes the medication into mist and makes it easier to breathe in. You might get steroid pills, too. They can help ease inflammation in your lungs.

In severe cases, your doctor may recommend an oxygen machine.

Prevention

You can’t control pollen counts or thunderstorms, but you can control how you’re affected if they come together. If you have asthma or hay fever or are allergic to grass, the best thing to do is keep your condition under control and know how to handle an asthma attack if you have one.

Talk with your doctor about an action plan that includes:

  • Recommended doses of your medications
  • Your emergency contact information
  • Your doctor’s information

If you have hay fever or allergies, see a specialist to figure out your triggers. If you’re allergic to pollen and your doctor wants you to have treatment for it, be sure to start taking your meds at least 6 weeks before high-pollen season begins.

Keep an eye on the weather, too. On high-pollen days, especially if thunderstorms are expected, try to stay indoors and keep your windows closed. It’s especially important to stay out of the high winds that come just before thunderstorms.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian on July 15, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology: “Asthma Attack.”

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: “Asthma,” “Asthma Action Plan,” “Thunderstorms and Asthma: An Unexpected Connection.”

National Asthma Council Australia: “Thunderstorm Asthma,” “Thunderstorm Asthma Advice – Those Who ‘Wheeze and Sneeze’ Urged to Take Extra Care.”

Asthma Australia: “Thunderstorm Asthma.”

Victoria State Government, Better Health Channel: “Epidemic Thunderstorm Asthma.”

Asia Pacific Allergy: “Thunderstorm Asthma: Potential Danger But A Unique Opportunity.”

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America: “What Are the Symptoms of Asthma?”

Mayo Clinic: “Asthma Attack.”

Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy: “Thunderstorm Asthma.”

National Asthma Council Australia: “Be Prepared For Thunderstorm Asthma.”

American Association for the Advancement of Science: “Thunderstorm-triggered Asthma Attacks Put Under The Microscope In Australia.”

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