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Thunderstorm asthma

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Paulina Keber
Staff Writer

Friday, July 5, 2013, 1:27 PM -

For those who suffer from asthma, the spring and summer months can be quite rough. What’s worse is that asthma attacks can also be triggered by something called thunderstorm asthma. Unfamiliar with this term? So was I when I heard it for the first time last week. 

Thunderstorm asthma is the sudden onset of asthmatic symptoms following a thunderstorm. Symptoms of this phenomenon can come on suddenly and include shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and wheezing. 

But why does this happen? 

Most people would assume that thunderstorms would lessen the chance of having an attack because storms clear the air of what typically induces attacks. According to the Lung Association of Saskatchewan, that is not the case. Stagnant air masses before a storm cause pollens and spores that normally prompt asthma attacks to settle. As thunderstorms draw closer, high winds release the pollens and spores into the atmosphere at a rapid rate. The spike in bioaerosol levels caused by storms are the likely reason for asthma attacks.

The humidity and change in air temperature are also to blame for the sudden onset of asthma attacks after a storm. These factors combined help to break the pollen grains into allergenic fragments, which then lift off of the ground. 

Surprisingly, this phenomenon has occurred all over the world for over 30 years. What’s more is that it has been known to affect people without any history of asthma. The combination of warm weather, thunderstorms, and high pollen counts puts anyone at risk of suffering an attack. In fact, there have been numerous ‘epidemics’ in different parts of the world. Most notably was the episode that occurred in London, England in the summer of 1994. Over a 30 hour period following the storm, there were 640 admissions into the hospital for asthma-related symptoms. This number was almost ten times the number of people usually admitted during the same period of time. 

While the numbers seem alarming, know that thunderstorm asthma generally affects those that either already have asthma or are prone to allergies, have an existing respiratory condition, or are sick.

It was also found that not all storms cause asthma. Certain factors need to come together to result in any sort of epidemic. This may explain why this term is unfamiliar with many Canadians since it is uncommon to see storms in Canada that generate the conditions needed to cause asthma attacks. This is beginning to change however, as Canada is starting to see storms similar to those south of the border. One study in Calgary looked at the number of people admitted for respiratory related problems following a storm. It was found that 157 people sought care for respiratory symptoms over the duration of 48 hours. On a normal day, Calgary usually only sees about 17 people. It has also been concluded in a Canadian case report that there have been more occurrences of thunderstorm asthma in Canada now than in previous years. 

Thunderstorm-related asthma may not happen frequently, but it is important to safeguard yourself from it ever happening. And the best way to treat asthma is to prevent it from occurring. First, avoid asthma triggers like physical activity when the air quality is not good or a thunderstorm is forecast. If you already suffer asthma it might also be a good idea to stay inside before and after a storm with the windows closed. 

If you do find yourself in a situation where you are having an asthma attack, stay calm. Next, sit down and try taking slow deep breaths. If you already suffer from asthma, make sure to have your puffer handy. If the symptoms do not improve with medication within 10 minutes or your symptoms worsens, call 9-1-1 immediately.

Tornado touches down in southern Saskatchewan

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