Thunderstorm asthma: Why you need a plan now

Peak thunderstorm asthma season has begun, and those with asthma and allergies are warned to be on guard. Here’s what to watch out for.

Five years on from a dramatic thunderstorm asthma event in Melbourne that led to 10 deaths and thousands of calls for help, Australians have been urged to prepare for another high-risk season.

Thunderstorm asthma season lasts until the end of December, and the Bureau of Meteorology says the risk is greater than usual this year.

That’s due to predicted heavy spring rainfall, which is likely to lead to above average grass growth – and critically, ryegrass pollen.

And with picnickers out in force this year due to Covid-19 restrictions, it pays to have a plan in place.

Why risk of thunderstorm asthma is higher this year

The Bureau’s Keris Arndt offers some further explanation as to why the outlook is ripe for a risky thunderstorm asthma season.

“Forecast wet and warm conditions will lead to good grass and vegetation growth over the spring period,” Keris says.

“This forecast is largely driven by a negative Indian Ocean Dipole, which is the first negative IOD event since 2016.”

The Indian Ocean Dipole is the difference in sea surface temperature between the eastern and western Indian Ocean, which affects the climate and contributes to variations in rainfall over parts of Australia.

Have a thunderstorm asthma action plan

National Asthma Council Australia director Professor Peter Wark says the best protection against thunderstorm asthma is to manage your asthma or hay fever well – starting now.

“There’s certainly been plenty of rainfall, and there’ll be plenty of pollen,” Prof Wark says.

Where possible, he suggests you also avoid exposure to springtime thunderstorms and the wind gusts that come before them.

“Having good control of your asthma does help, there’s no doubt about that,” Prof Wark says.

“The single most important thing that people can do to prevent their asthma from getting worse under any circumstances is to be using their regular preventer in the manner that they’ve been prescribed, and having a written asthma action plan at all ages.”

How to reduce risk of thunderstorm asthma

It’s wise to check grass pollen counts for your region every day during spring and early summer, and be prepared to hunker down if a thunderstorm is approaching, Prof Wark says.

“During the thunderstorm event, if you can, stay indoors with your windows closed and the airconditioner off or on recirculation mode, or if driving, shut your car windows and only use recirculating air.”

You can also:

  • Review your asthma plan with your GP
  • Check your inhaler technique
  • Keep emergency numbers on hand just in case

Do I have asthma, hay fever or Covid-19?  

Prof Wark says the symptoms of asthma, hay fever and Covid-19 may be similar.

“It can be difficult to tell the difference between them, so if you are unsure – get tested for Covid-19 and stay home until you get your results.”

Written by Larissa Ham.