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FAQ: What Is Thunderstorm Asthma? Who Is at Risk?

Thunderstorm asthma is a condition that occurs when a thunderstorm is followed by a sudden surge in asthma attacks.

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Thunderstorm asthma is a rare condition that can be potentially life-threatening.This can trigger asthma symptoms in people who have never experienced them before, or make existing symptoms worse in those who already have the condition.

We spoke to Dr Jeenam ShahConsultant Pulmonology, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre, and Dr Nimish Shah, Consultant Pulmonology to understand the phenomenon of thunderstorm asthma, its causes, and what you can do to protect yourself from this unusual asthma trigger.

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What is thunderstorm asthma?

Thunderstorm asthma is a condition that occurs when a thunderstorm is followed by a sudden surge in asthma attacks. It is caused by an interaction between pollen grains and thunderstorm conditions, leading to a high concentration of airborne allergens.

This sudden spike in allergens can trigger asthma attacks in people who are allergic to these pollens, even if they have never experienced asthma before.

According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), in the past, forecasting thunderstorm asthma events has been challenging due to their irregular and infrequent nature.

Nevertheless, most of these incidents have taken place in the spring or early summer months, when levels of circulating aeroallergens tend to be elevated.

What are the symptoms of thunderstorm asthma?

The symptoms of thunderstorm asthma are similar to those of regular asthma and can range from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:

  • Wheezing

  • Coughing

  • Shortness of breath

  • Tightness in chest

In some cases, people may also experience difficulty speaking, confusion, or a blue tinge to their lips and nails, which can be signs of a life-threatening asthma attack. Some people may also experience a runny or stuffy nose, itchy or watery eyes, and a feeling of tightness or pressure in the face or head.

Who is at risk of thunderstorm asthma? How is it diagnosed?

According to the National Asthma Council Australia, thunderstorm asthma can affect people living in city or country areas, even if they've never had asthma.

Dr Nimish says, "People who have asthma or hay fever are at greater risk of developing thunderstorm asthma, especially if they have a history of allergies or respiratory problems. Other risk factors include living in urban areas, being exposed to high levels of pollen, and having poorly controlled asthma."

Your doctor may ask you about your symptoms and medical history, perform a physical exam, and order tests such as lung function tests, allergy tests, and chest X-rays to rule out other conditions.

"Having an asthma management plan, which tells you how to step up medication and how assess the symptoms can be really helpful along with the aleady existing factors for diagnosis and handling of the disease."
Dr Nimish Shah, Consultant Pulmonology, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre.
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How to prevent asthma? What is the treatment?

To stay safe during springtime, it is important to take appropriate measures to manage your asthma. If you have been prescribed asthma medication by your doctor, continue taking them as directed.

"It is recommended that you speak with your doctor to ensure your current asthma treatment plan is effective and up-to-date. This includes having a written asthma action plan that outlines steps to take in case of an asthma attack."
Dr Jeenam ShahConsultant Pulmonology, Jaslok Hospital & Research Centre.

Thunderstorms can exacerbate asthma symptoms, so it's best to seek shelter indoors with windows shut and air conditioning set to recirculate/recycled during storms with strong wind gusts. Additionally, always carry a reliever inhaler with you in case of an unexpected asthma attack.

The treatment for thunderstorm asthma includes a combination of medications, such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids, to help open up the airways and reduce inflammation.

In severe cases, oxygen therapy or mechanical ventilation may be necessary to support breathing. It is important to seek medical attention immediately if you experience any symptoms of thunderstorm asthma.

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