It’s the super-rare phenomenon that’s claimed the lives of eight Melburnians when it struck a fortnight ago, and put hundreds more in hospital – but what is ‘thunderstorm asthma’?

With the Bureau of Meteorology forecasting severe storms in NSW and VIC tonight, and experts warning of breathing problems for asthma and hay fever sufferers in both states, we thought it wise to help arm you with information that could help.

Read on, and stay safe fam.

What is thunderstorm asthma?

In the most basic sense, ‘thunderstorm asthma’ is a condition brought on when large storms – like the one Melbs endured after that record-breaking scorcher of a day – trigger a change in the size of pollen particles. “What we understand is the heavy rain causes the rye grass pollen to absorb moisture and they then burst and become much smaller,” says Robin Auld from Asthma Victoria. “And those smaller particles can be dispersed very easily by wind over quite a distance.” Those smaller, allergenic particles can penetrate deep into the small airways of the lung. 

Who does it affect?

‘Thunderstorm Asthma’ can severely affect not only sufferers of asthma and hayfever, but people who don’t normally suffer from respiratory problems. That’s why, in Melbs, almost 200 people were taken to hospital and 2,000 calls for help were made after a mass-flare up across the city. 

How common is it?

Not very. The first known incident of ‘thunderstorm asthma’ occurred in 1987, again in Melbs (south-eastern Australia is particularly vulnerable because of the way the wind blows), but one also hit Wagga Wagga in October 1997. There have also been recorded cases in England and Italy.

The most recent epidemic went down in Melbourne in November 2010, following a thunderstorm, when grass pollen counts hit extreme levels and triggered a tenfold increase in patients presenting with acute asthma attacks 24 hours after the storm hit. Thunderstorm asthma epidemics are uncommon but the prospect of another wet spring / summer means you should be extra vigilant. 

How is it treated? 


Anyone who suffers from thunderstorm asthma will typically be treated the same as way as someone suffering an acute asthma attack, usually via inhaled medication to dilate the airways, as well as anti-inflammatory medication. 

Can you prevent it?

Yes and no. For those who already suffer from asthma or allergies, prevention is key. That means good asthma control i.e. using a regular preventer inhaler during the spring / summer months, even if you’re feeling tip-top. Inhalers are designed to reduce the inflammation in the lungs over a period of time and can be a big help protecting from thunderstorm asthma attacks (and attacks in general, of course).

Not into the idea of carrying an inhaler around at all times? Consider this. After ‘thunderstorm asthma’ hit Wagga Wagga, researchers compared the data of those who experienced a thunderstorm asthma attack with a control group of people who suffered an asthma attack on other days of the year. Of those with a history of asthma, only one in four (27%) of affected cases were taking regular preventer inhalers compared with more than half (56%) of the control.

What else can I do to reduce my chances?


Staying indoors can help reduce your risk of thunderstorm asthma but that’s not always going to be an option of those who need to go to work or uni. Though not foolproof, disposable dust masks – like those often worn by people in high-pollution cities like Tokyo – can help. You can pick up hypo-allergenic packs of 10 disposables from Bunnings for $2.98. 

You can also DIY a castor oil pack,  which is recommended by a bunch of health professionals for breaking up and drawing out stored toxins and congestion from the lungs. They’re easy to make and are placed on the chest, similar to vapor rubs. Here’s a recipe if you want to give it a crack.

What do you do if you suspect an attack’s coming on?

If you have difficulty breathing – whether you have a history of asthma or not – call 000 immediately.

For more info on asthma in general, you can hit up Asthma Australia


Photo: Getty / Fred Zhang.