Melbourne, October 29: Every year the grass pollen season brings an increase in asthma and hay fever. In Victoria, the grass pollen season runs from October to the end of December and during this time people can also be affected by ‘thunderstorm asthma’.
Thunderstorm asthma is asthma that is triggered by a particular type of thunderstorm when there is lots of grass pollen in the air.
It can result in people wheezing, feeling short of breath, tight in the chest and coughing.
The world’s largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event happened in Victoria in November 2016.
During that event, many people with backgrounds from Asia, South-East Asia, India and the Indian subcontinent were affected and attended hospital emergency departments with breathing difficulties.
People with asthma or hay fever are more at risk of thunderstorm asthma and these people are being urged to protect themselves during the grass pollen season.
Victoria’s Deputy Chief Health Officer Dr Angie Bone is calling on Victorians of Asian, Southeast Asian, Indian and sub-continent backgrounds to ensure they are properly prepared for any potential epidemic thunderstorm asthma events.
“It’s common for people who have moved to Victoria from other parts of the world, including Asia, Southeast Asia, India and the sub-continent to develop asthma and hay fever, which puts you at risk of thunderstorm asthma,” said Victoria’s Deputy CHO, Dr Bone.
“You should talk to your doctor if you feel short of breath, tight in the chest, wheeze or have a persistent cough– you might have undiagnosed asthma.”
Uday Dhumatkar, who has been a prominent Indian community leader, experienced a severe and life-changing asthma attack in November 2010 and has since improved his asthma and allergy management to prevent it from ever happening again.
Uday migrated to Australia from India in the 1980s. He has had asthma for a long time, but his condition worsened when he moved to Melbourne.
In November 2010, Uday mowed the lawn in the afternoon and as the evening went on, he began to feel tight in the chest and dizzy. His condition worsened as the night went on. Around midnight he woke feeling quite unwell. He tried taking his reliever medication – using the four steps of asthma first aid – and when he didn’t improve, his wife called an ambulance. He was treated and taken to hospital, and returned home after an hour or so.
Unfortunately, Uday’s condition again worsened. At around 5am, Uday’s wife called an ambulance and he was rushed to hospital – something Uday himself does not remember.
“I had a very bad breathing difficultly – my chest was like a stone. I couldn’t breathe, and I couldn’t express myself,” Uday said.
“As my wife explained to me, I was black and blue, I couldn’t sit, I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t say anything.”
“I woke up after 36 hours. They had put me into an induced coma and I realised that I had lost one day.”
Uday was in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) for 12 days. He recovered slowly, and expresses the experience as feeling “like a second birth”.
Uday didn’t know he was allergic to grass, which he found out after this serious episode. He now checks the pollen count every day. He has an asthma action plan and keeps his asthma preventer medication by his toothbrush, so he remembers to take it twice a day.
“I always keep myself ready, and always carry [reliever medication] in my pocket so if I go out – if there is an emergency, or I don’t feel well – I use the [reliever] and then come back home.”
On 21 November 2016, when Melbourne experienced the largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event in the world, Uday had checked the pollen count and taken actions to protect himself: “I used my medications in the morning and the evening – so I was normal on that day.”
Uday is now prepared, and he has some great advice for people with asthma and hay fever: “Always be prepared,” he says. “If you suffer from hay fever or asthma, always have the plan ready and always be alert. So that when you recognise that you are going to get asthma or some breathing problems – then you immediately implement your asthma plan.”
With his asthma under control, Uday says he can do anything he wants: “I travel, I go to various places, and of course I have four grandkids – I play with them, I take them away. So asthma is no hindrance to my enjoyment and fulfilment of my life.”
The best way to protect yourself from thunderstorm asthma is by managing your asthma and hay fever. This means you need to:
- Recognise asthma and hay fever symptoms;
- Discuss these with your doctor or pharmacist;
- Take your medication as prescribed; and
- Update and follow your asthma action plan or hay fever treatment plan.
Where possible, people with asthma and hay fever should avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October to December, especially the wind gusts that come right before the storm.
Victorians can check the epidemic thunderstorm asthma forecast and people who are at risk can take actions to protect themselves on higher risk days. The forecast is available on VicEmergency at http://emergency.vic.gov.au/prepare/#thunderstorm-asthma-forecast