Thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne, Australia, sent thousands of people to the hospital this week, resulting in five deaths. Causing severe respiratory problems, cases of thunderstorm asthma are triggered when sudden changes in weather conditions stir up large amounts of pollen.
During late spring in Australia, pollen levels are at their highest. When a rainstorm occurs, the pollen becomes saturated and explodes, quickly dispersing into the air. When the tiny particles are carried by the wind into populated areas, they become ensnared in the nose and lungs as people inhale.
“When you have a perfect storm coming together (of) a very high pollen day, high humidity, and a thunderstorm, the grains of rye grass absorb water with the humidity and they break up into thousands of pieces,” explained Robin Ould, chief executive of the Asthma Foundation of Australia.
The trapped pollen irritates the lungs, causing inflammation and mucus formation. Soon after, it becomes difficult to breathe normally. Even someone who has never experienced breathing difficulties in their lifetime could quickly develop symptoms of thunderstorm asthma.
Rye grass pollen is particularly plentiful in and around Melbourne, said Ould. The combination of heavy rain, wind, and the peak of the spring season during the past week in Australia generated a health emergency unlike any seen in recent history.
“When we’ve had people calling for ambulances – one call every four-and-a-half seconds at the peak – it was like having 150 bombs going off right across a particular part of metropolitan Melbourne,” said state Health Minister Jill Hennessy on Tuesday.
According to the Victoria Department of Health, five people have died and six remain in intensive care. Reportedly, the most recent death was a female in her 40s. The four other people who died from complications of thunderstorm asthma were Omar Moujalled, Hope Carnevali, Apollo Papadopoulos, and Clarence Leo.
For more than 30 years, scientists have been studying the effects of thunderstorm asthma. The rare phenomenon has been reported in several countries, including the U.K., Italy, and the U.S. since the 1980s.
One of the largest occurrences of thunderstorm asthma happened in 1994. In mid-June of that year, London was hit with a severe thunderstorm, and shortly thereafter, emergency rooms were filled with hundreds of people suffering from breathing problems. Many remained in the hospital for several days, while five were admitted to intensive care.
While most scientists agree on the cause of thunderstorm asthma, the unusual event is not completely understood. It is widely believed that it only happens in high pollen areas and only affects people with hay fever. Thunderstorm asthma seems to only strike people with pollen allergies that are outside, yet scientists have not been able to definitively prove that staying indoors is a way to avoid the attack.
Additionally, rainstorms do not always generate higher numbers of asthma attacks even during high-pollen seasons, leaving many researching wondering what they are missing. Some speculate it may be a combination of pollen and increased airborne pollution in cities like Melbourne.
Regardless of the exact cause, some climate change experts fear the number of thunderstorm asthma cases are likely to increase. A report issued earlier this year by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted the buildup of greenhouse gasses will eventually lead to a higher number of severe weather conditions and more intense thunderstorms. According to the paper, this upsurge in storms coinciding with the pollen season of particular “geographical zones” will trigger an uptick in people needing medical care related to asthma attacks.
The Victoria Department of Health reports at least 8,500 people were affected by thunderstorm asthma in Melbourne just this week. When pollen gets into the lungs, the body’s immune system goes into a panic, prompting symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, and constrained breathing.
[Featured Image by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images]