13 December, 2016

Melbourne’s Thunderstorm Asthma Explained….

In Melbourne in November 2016, a freak weather event led to a huge spike in calls to Ambulance Victoria with cases of acute asthma, and Melbourne’s emergency departments were swamped with presentations. 8 deaths have been attributed to this event.

A prolonged winter with high rainfall this year, has given rise to very high pollen counts this spring. A stormy night of high winds and moisture led to the bursting of mainly rye grass pollen into tiny air borne particles, which were easily inhaled into the small airways. For those that suffer with asthma or hay fever, and allergic to grass pollens, the pollen exposure led to severe and rapid development of respiratory symptoms, namely wheeze, chest tightness, difficulty breathing, and cough. This occurs when a sensitive or allergic airway lining becomes inflamed, swollen, narrowed and then secretes excessive mucus.

The large numbers seeking assistance that night highlighted that many asthmatics do not manage their asthma appropriately. It is estimated that over 25% of asthmatics do not adequately manage their condition.

Undertreating asthma leaves vulnerable individuals at risk of severe and unexpected attacks not only in rare weather conditions such as last month’s thunderstorm, but also in the setting of more common triggers such as respiratory viruses, exercise, cold winter air or exposure to inhaled irritants. Under-treating asthma long term may also lead to a gradual deterioration of heart and lung function which can become irreversible.

Whilst asthma cannot be cured, it can be well controlled and long-term damage to the heart and airways can be prevented. Controlled asthma means that you should not have symptoms or be reaching for your reliever medication (blue puffer) for relief of symptoms, on more than 2 days per week, (routine pre-exercise dosing excepted). If you are requiring it on more than 2 days per week, your asthma is not well enough controlled and you should see your doctor for review of your treatment plan. Furthermore, your activities should not be limited by your asthma.

Another concern raised by the recent thunderstorm asthma event is that many people did not know they had asthma or had had prior symptoms but had never addressed these with their doctor. Asthma can be diagnosed at any age, and If you have any of the symptoms of asthma, it is important to see your GP for assessment. If you have eczema or hay fever or a close relative with asthma and/or allergies, you are more likely to have asthma yourself. You may check out here if you’re looking for an effective solution for eczema.

Current recommendations if you have asthma:

  1. You should have an Asthma Action Plan – this is a set of instruction written by your doctor that helps you stay in control of your asthma. It outlines: what medication to take & when, what to do if your asthma is getting worse, and what to do in case of an asthma emergency.
  2. You should have an asthma review appointment with your doctor annually. This may include spirometry (formal lung function testing) and updating your asthma action plan – your asthma changes over times so your plan may change too.

Your Asthma Action Plan is more than just a piece of paper. Together with regular review appointments they have been proven to:

  • Reduce your chance of needing to go to hospital
  • Improve your lung function and prevent long-term damage to your lungs
  • Reduce your number of days off work or school due to asthma

Controlling your asthma well improves your quality of life and reduces your vulnerability to life-threatening episodes. It also prevents long-term damage and means your lung function will be better when you get older. So if you have symptoms of asthma or you are using your blue puffer more than 2 days a week, haven’t had your annual asthma review appointment or don’t have an updated asthma action plan in place, arrange to see your GP for an asthma check up. Ensure your asthma is managed well so that you can take control of your health and can enjoy a full and active life.