Thunderstorm asthma is asthma that is triggered by a particular type of thunderstorm when there are high amounts of grass pollen in the air (typically between October and the end of December). It can result in people wheezing, feeling short of breath, and tight in the chest with coughing. It can be sudden, serious and even life threatening.
On 21 November 2016, Melbourne experienced the largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in the world. Although there have been other epidemic thunderstorm asthma events previously reported in Melbourne, none have been close to the size and severity of the November 2016 event.
This story is about Uday Dhumatkar. Uday experienced a severe and life-changing asthma attack in November 2010 and has since improved his asthma and allergy management to prevent it from ever happening again.
Uday migrated to Australia from India in the 1980s. He has had asthma for a long time, but his condition worsened when he moved to Melbourne.
In November 2010, Uday mowed the lawn in the afternoon and as the evening went on, he began to feel tight in the chest and dizzy. His condition worsened as the night went on. Around midnight he woke feeling quite unwell. He tried taking his reliever medication – using the four steps of asthma first aid – and when he didn't improve, his wife called an ambulance. He was treated and taken to hospital, and returned home after an hour or so.
Unfortunately, Uday’s condition again worsened. At around 5am, Uday’s wife called an ambulance and he was rushed to hospital – something Uday himself does not remember.
“I had a very bad breathing difficultly – my chest was like a stone. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t express myself,” Uday said.
“As my wife explained to me, I was black and blue, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t say anything.”
“I woke up after 36 hours. They had put me into an induced coma and I realised that I had lost one day.”
Uday was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for 12 days. He recovered slowly, and expresses the experience as feeling “like a second birth”.
Uday didn't know he was allergic to grass, which he found out after this serious episode. He now checks the pollen count every day. He has an asthma action plan and keeps his asthma preventer medication by his toothbrush, so he remembers to take it twice a day.
“I always keep myself ready, and always carry [reliever medication] in my pocket so if I go out – if there is an emergency, or I don’t feel well – I use the [reliever] and then come back home.”
On 21 November 2016, when Melbourne experienced the largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in the world, Uday had checked the pollen count and taken actions to protect himself: “I used my medications in the morning and the evening – so I was normal on that day.”
Uday is now prepared, and he has some great advice for people with asthma and hay fever: “Always be prepared,” he says. “If you suffer from hay fever or asthma, always have the plan ready and always be alert. So that when you recognise that you are going to get asthma or some breathing problems – then you immediately implement your asthma plan.”
With his asthma under control, Uday says he can do anything he wants: “I travel, I go to various places, and of course I have four grandkids – I play with them, I take them away. So asthma is no hindrance to my enjoyment and fulfilment of my life.”
Managing asthma and allergies matters
Protect yourself this pollen season
Thunderstorm asthma can affect those with asthma or hay fever - especially people who experience wheezing or coughing with their hay fever. That’s why it’s important for people with asthma or hay fever to know about thunderstorm asthma and what they can do to help protect themselves during grass pollen season.
For people with asthma or hay fever, where possible avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October through December – especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows. If you have your air conditioning on, turn it onto recirculate.
Having good control of your asthma or hay fever can help reduce your risk of thunderstorm asthma. If you’ve ever had asthma or hay fever – talk to your doctor about what you can do to help protect yourself from the risk of thunderstorm asthma this pollen season.
If you develop asthma symptoms, follow the four steps of asthma first aid and make sure you follow up with your doctor. The most common symptoms of asthma are wheezing, shortness of breath, continuing coughing and a tight feeling in the chest.
Know the four steps of asthma first aid
It’s important for everyone in the community to know the four steps of asthma first aid so they know what to do if they or someone is having an asthma attack.
If you think someone is having an asthma attack:
Step 1: Sit the person upright
Step 2: Give 4 separate puffs of blue or grey reliever puffer – make sure you shake the puffer, put 1 puff into the spacer and get the person to take 4 breaths from the spacer. Repeat this until the person has taken 4 puffs.
Remember: shake, 1 puff, 4 breaths.
Step 3: Wait 4 minutes. If there is no improvement, give the person 4 more separate puffs as in step 2.
Remember: shake, 1 puff, 4 breaths.
Step 4: If there is still no improvement dial triple zero (000) for an ambulance. Keep giving the person 4 separate puffs every 4 minutes until emergency assistance arrives.
If you don’t have a spacer, simply inhale 4 puffs directly by mouth.
Call triple zero (000) immediately if the person is not breathing, if their asthma suddenly becomes worse, or if the person is having an asthma attack and there’s no blue or grey reliever available.
If you’re not sure that it’s asthma, call triple zero (000) immediately.
Find out more
Download the Vic Emergency app and set up a 'watch zone' for your location to make sure you’re notified before an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event occurs. You can also access the thunderstorm asthma forecast at the VicEmergency website.
For more information about thunderstorm asthma and how you can be prepared, visit our thunderstorm asthma pages.
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