Thunderstorm asthma

 05 October 2020

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Grass pollen season brings a seasonal increase in asthma and hay fever. It also brings the chance of epidemic thunderstorm asthma.

Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events are thought to be triggered by a unique combination of high grass pollen levels and a certain type of thunderstorm with strong winds, causing a large number of people to develop asthma symptoms over a short period of time. Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events don't happen every year but when they do, they happen during grass pollen season, which is normally from October through December.

Data from thunderstorm asthma epidemics suggest that the risk of asthma triggered by the particular thunderstorm is highest in adults who are sensitised to grass pollen and have seasonal allergic rhinitis (with or without known asthma). The worst outcomes are seen in people with poorly controlled asthma.

More than ever before, this year it is important to manage any hay fever or asthma symptoms, as these conditions can produce symptoms that are similar to coronavirus (COVID-19) such as a runny nose, cough or shortness of breath.

While good management can help prevent these, it is critical to get tested for coronavirus if these are different to your usual symptoms.  

People with asthma and hay fever symptoms may also touch their face more frequently, increasing their risk of being infected or transmitting coronavirus if they are not practicing appropriate hand hygiene.

Wearing a face mask, maintaining at least 1.5 metres of physical distance between yourself and others and practicing good hand and respiratory hygiene remains critical as people who are sneezing and coughing from their hay fever or asthma may produce more droplets and, if they have coronavirus, may be more likely to spread it to others.  

If you have questions about COVID-19 call the dedicated hotline 1800 675 398 – open 24 hours, 7 days, or visit the DHHS Coronavirus website.

Here are some things you can do to prepare for pollen season:

  • If you've ever had asthma – talk to your GP about what you can do to help protect yourself from the risk of thunderstorm asthma this pollen season. Remember taking an asthma preventer properly and regularly is key to preventing asthma, including thunderstorm asthma.
  • If you experience wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness or continuing coughing then you may have asthma. It’s important you talk to your GP and get it checked out. 
  • If you have hay fever – see your pharmacist or GP for a hay fever treatment plan and check if you should have an asthma reliever puffer – which is available from a pharmacy without a prescription.
  • If you have hay fever, and especially if you experience wheezing and coughing with your hay fever, it is important to make sure you don’t also have asthma. Speak to your GP today about whether or not you might have asthma.

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.

Learn more about thunderstorm asthma at the Better Health Channel websiteAsthma Australia and National Asthma Council.

The epidemic thunderstorm asthma forecast will be issued throughout the grass pollen season from 1 October 2020 to 31 December 2020. You can access the forecast via the VicEmergency website or app, the Health Vic website or the Melbourne Pollen website or app.

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