Christine McDonald, Director of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine from Austin Health provides valuable advice to people who have asthma and hay fever and may find themselves affected by a thunderstorm asthma event.

Every few years there is a mini-epidemic I guess I would say in Melbourne of thunderstorm asthma. Generally in November, generally around the same climatic conditions. But Melbourne seems to be the centre and certainly this last event was the largest that we’ve had in the world.

The rye grass in northern or NW Victoria gets taken up when the thunderstorm event happens and the granules of pollen explode. These make them much smaller and able to be breathed into the respiratory tract.

Although the nose normally filters out such granules, in this situation you have people at high risk of allergy, either having had asthma before of having had a tendency to asthma (an underlying tendency to asthma) with their hayfever suddenly having an acute load of allergen and that can present as asthma, as wheeze, as shortness of breath/inability to breathe.

These might be quite acute in onset and quite distressing if you’ve not experienced them before.

Obviously such unprecedented events can have a major impact on the health system.

We have to remember that this can be acute and catastrophic and we need to take precautions.

The people who present with thunderstorm asthma are classically people who have rye grass allergy. The classically have a history of hayfever.

Those people may never have had asthma before, may only have had hayfever and if the climatic conditions are right they may present with their first episode of asthma during such a thunderstorm event.

If you know you have asthma and it’s well controlled, be alert, be prepared, take your medications, have your action plan ready.

So the four steps of asthma first aid are: sit the person down and give them 4 puffs of the blue or grey reliever inhaler, wait for 4 minutes, if they’re still not feeling 100%, repeat, and if they’re still not feeling better, call the ambulance.

If you have had severe hayfever or hayfever of any type really, and you know that you’ve got rye grass pollen allergy or you’ve wheezed in the past, see your doctor to discuss how you might prevent an episode of thunderstorm asthma occurring to you.

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