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Environmental health

Protect yourself this pollen season

Grass pollen season (October through to December) brings the chance of thunderstorm asthma. 

Thunderstorm asthma is asthma that is triggered by a particular type of thunderstorm when there are high amounts of grass pollen in the air. 

When a large number of people develop asthma symptoms over a short period of time, caused by high amounts of grass pollen and a certain type of thunderstorm, it is known as epidemic thunderstorm asthma. 

Thunderstorm asthma can affect those with asthma or hay fever – especially people who experience wheezing or coughing with their hay fever. That’s why it’s important for people with asthma or hay fever to know about thunderstorm asthma and what they can do to help protect themselves during grass pollen season. 

Who is most at risk of thunderstorm asthma?

You are at risk of thunderstorm asthma if you:  

  • have asthma (or have had asthma in the past) 
  • have hay fever (allergy affecting the nose) during Spring. 

If you feel short of breath, tight in the chest, wheeze or cough during pollen season – you might have undiagnosed asthma which also puts you at risk.  

Is there a risk of thunderstorm asthma every time there is a thunderstorm?

No. Epidemic thunderstorm asthma events are uncommon and don’t occur every year. These events are triggered by a unique combination of high grass pollen levels and a certain type of thunderstorm with strong winds. Rye grass pollen levels are thought to be an essential factor in determining whether an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event may occur. In Victoria, the pollen season is typically from the beginning of October to the end of December. 

What should everyone do to prevent and treat epidemic thunderstorm asthma?

Although epidemic thunderstorm asthma events are uncommon, people should be aware of the heightened risk during the grass pollen season and be appropriately prepared. Everyone in the community should also know the signs and symptoms of asthma and know the four steps of asthma first aid so they know what to do if someone is having an asthma attack. 

Four steps of asthma first aid:  

  1. Sit the person upright
    • Be calm and reassuring.
    • Do not leave them alone.
  2. Give 4 separate puffs of blue/grey reliever puffer
    • Shake the puffer. 
    • Put 1 puff into the spacer. 
    • Get the person to take 4 breaths from the spacer. 
    • Repeat until 4 puffs have been taken. (If you don’t have a spacer, give 1 puff as they take 1 slow, deep breath and hold breath for as long as comfortable. Repeat until all puffs are taken.) 
    • Remember: Shake, 1 puff, 4 breaths. 
  3. Wait 4 minutes
    • If there is no improvement, give 4 more separate puffs of blue/grey reliever, as with Step 2. 
  4. If breathing does not return to normal, call 000 for an ambulance
    • Tell the operator that someone is having an asthma emergency.
    • Keep giving the person 4 separate puffs, taking 4 breaths for each puff, every 4 minutes until emergency assistance arrives.

What should people at increased risk do to prevent and treat thunderstorm asthma?

There are some key actions everyone at increased risk can take: 

  • Talk to your GP or healthcare provide about your risk of thunderstorm asthma and what additional actions you should take depending on your individual situation.  
  • Where possible, avoid being outside during thunderstorms from October through December – especially in the wind gusts that come before the storm. Go inside and close your doors and windows, and if you have your air conditioner on, turn it to recirculate. 
  • Have an up-to-date asthma action plan or hay fever treatment plan and know the four steps of asthma first aid. 
  • Have reliever medication available in grass pollen season and know how to use it (with a spacer whenever one is available). 
  • Be alert to and act on the development of asthma symptoms as explained in your asthma action plan, if you have one, or if you don’t, use asthma first aid. 
  • Check the epidemic thunderstorm asthma risk forecast during the grass pollen season on the VicEmergency website to see if there is an increased chance of an epidemic thunderstorm asthma event occurring. 

What are the signs that someone is having an asthma attack?

If you are experiencing any of the following signs, follow your asthma action plan. If you do not have an asthma action plan, or you are assisting someone who is experiencing an asthma attack, start asthma first aid. Do not wait until asthma is severe. 

Mild to moderate signs (commence asthma first aid)

  • minor difficulty breathing 
  • able to talk in full sentences 
  • able to walk or move around 
  • may have a cough or wheeze. 

Severe asthma signs (call 000 for an ambulance and commence asthma first aid): 

  • obvious difficulty breathing 
  • cannot speak a full sentence in one breath 
  • tugging of the skin between ribs or at base of neck 
  • may have cough or wheeze 
  • reliever medication not lasting as long as usual. 

Life-threatening asthma signs (call 000 for an ambulance and commence asthma first aid): 

  • difficulty breathing (gasping for air) 
  • unable to speak one to 2 words per breath 
  • confused or exhausted 
  • lips are turning blue 
  • symptoms are getting worse very quickly 
  • collapsing 
  • getting little or no relief from reliever inhaler 
  • may no longer have wheeze or cough. 

For more information, head to the Better Health Channel website