Asthma is a common lung condition that affects 1 in 9 Australians. Essentially, people who suffer from asthma have sensitive airways that narrow because their small airways become swollen and inflamed. As you can imagine, this makes it super tricky for oxygen to get through which results in breathing difficulties, coughing and wheezing.
So what is the difference between regular asthma and thunderstorm asthma?
Most of you will remember the term thunderstorm asthma from the 2016 epidemic, where nine people sadly lost their lives due to complications caused by severe symptoms. Thunderstorm asthma is a specific form of asthma which is triggered by an unusual combination of pollen and certain types of thunderstorms. It’s important to note that any child can be affected by thunderstorm asthma symptoms, not just suffers of asthma. For a lot of parents, this can be a scary thought!
Thunderstorm asthma is most likely to occur in spring and early summer when the pollen count is high, but it can happen at any time.
Luckily, there are a lot of ways parents can prepare for thunderstorm asthma weather events and your pals at Tiny Hearts are here to help you out!
What triggers thunderstorm asthma?
Thunderstorm asthma is caused by an uncommon type of thunderstorm that causes grass pollen grains to be swept up into the clouds as the storm forms. When these grains absorb moisture, they can burst open and create massive amounts of smaller particles. One pollen grain can release up to 700 allergen particles. During the storm, these grains are blown to ground level which creates a mass wind full of potential asthma triggers.
Due to their small size, these particles can be unknowingly inhaled deeply into a child’s lungs resulting in irritation that can cause swelling, narrowing and excessive mucus production in the small airways. This, therefore, makes it difficult to breathe and may result in the typical symptoms of asthma such as wheezing and coughing. Unlike regular asthma, these symptoms can turn severe at a rapid rate.
Who is most at risk?
As mentioned previously, anyone can be susceptible to thunderstorm asthma symptoms; there are, however, groups of children who may be at a higher risk of irritation.
There is an increased risk for little ones who suffer from asthma, eczema, hay fever or are allergic to grass pollen. There are also risks for children with undiagnosed asthma; some children may not present any asthmatic symptoms before a thunderstorm asthma weather event.
How can I be prepared?
How you prepare for thunderstorm asthma will depend on your child’s current medical history.
If your child has asthma:
- Discuss thunderstorm asthma with your doctor and include steps addressing this in your asthma action plan
- If pollens trigger your child's asthma, it’s vital to ensure your action plan is updated continuously and active during spring and summer when pollen counts are high. If your child uses a preventer, make sure it’s on them or with their regular medication at all times
- If a thunderstorm is forecast during the pollen season, avoid all possible interaction with allergens blown in the wind by keeping your bub indoors with doors and windows closed until the storm has passed
- Ensure their reliever medication is with them at all times
- If your child begins to develop asthmatic symptoms during a thunderstorm, monitor them carefully and refer to asthma action plan for treatment steps. If their symptoms start to worsen, call 000 immediately
If your child suffers from hay fever:
- Before grass pollen season, talk to your child’s doctor to discuss appropriate medications to use to manage their symptoms
- Talk to your doctor as well about the possibility of having asthma reliever on hand for your child in case of thunderstorm asthma weather events. They may recommend this as an excellent preventive measure
- If a thunderstorm is forecast during pollen season, avoid all possible interaction with allergens blown in the wind by keeping your bub indoors with doors and windows closed until the storm has passed
- If during a weather event, your child starts showing asthmatic symptoms, either use their emergency reliever medication prescribed by their doctor or call 000 if their condition begins to deteriorate
“But my child doesn’t suffer from asthma or hay fever. How can I be prepared?”
We totally get it, and while thunderstorm asthma is rare, it is highly unlikely for your child to suffer severe symptoms. The best thing to do during a thunderstorm asthma weather event is to be aware of the signs and to call 000 if you are worried at any point. To learn more about common asthmatic symptoms, click here.
It’s also essential for all parents to take notice of announcements regarding potential thunderstorm asthma weather events. National news outlets will often report warnings, or you can get weather updates and alerts from the Bureau of Meteorology or AusPollen.
Lucky for us, there are plenty of free resources available online which explains asthma, what to do if your child is having difficulty breathing and how to recognise early signs and symptoms. We’ve created a page over on our information hub dedicated to the ins and out of Asthma. We’ve also provided some links below to reputable organisations such as Asthma Australia and ASCIA.