In a review article, Nur-Shirin Harun and her team at the Royal Melbourne Hospital in Australia reported on an asthma epidemic that occurred in Melbourne in 2006 after a severe thunderstorm had erupted. The tragic outcome was that 3,400 people required medical assistance, ten of whom died.
How frequently do asthma attacks occur after thunderstorms?
The phenomenon has been known for over 30 years and occurs everywhere in the world. During a ten-year period (between 1993 and 2004) in the US alone, around 216,000 people required emergency medical services for breathing difficulties following a thunderstorm. Harun and her team believe that these figures are on the rise because climate change is increasing the likelihood of extreme weather patterns and heavy rainfall.
People with inadequately treated allergic asthma or hay fever are especially at risk.
How do thunderstorms trigger respiratory problems?
The exact mechanism is still unknown. It is believed that environmental influences and individual sensitisation are contributing factors.
Grass pollen or fungal spores penetrate deep into the lungs, triggering asthma attacks. Rain and high humidity break the pollen and fungal spores into smaller particles, which are then breathed in at higher concentrations and enter the small pulmonary vessels.
Typical symptoms in people with asthma or hay fever include breathlessness, coughing, bronchial spasms and hyperinflated lungs.
What can be done to prevent it?
The authors of the study say that it is important to prevent allergic reactions. Hay fever and allergic asthma should be treated with medication if symptoms are frequent and have an adverse effect on daily life.
However, an early warning system has not yet been developed for thunderstorms that are potentially dangerous for people with allergies.
Harun NS, Lachapelle P, Douglass J. Thunderstorm-triggered asthma: what we know so far. J Asthma Allergy. 2019;12:101-8.