Scientists investigate 10 deaths due to ‘thunderstorm asthma’


A COMBINATION of lightning strikes and popping pollen grains were behind the deaths of ten people who were exposed to “thunderstorm asthma”, scientists have claimed.

Thousands of people had to receive emergency medical care after the storm hit Melbourne, Australia in 2016.

Thousands of Australians had to seek medical care after they were exposed to thunderstorm asthma

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Thousands of Australians had to seek medical care after they were exposed to thunderstorm asthmaCredit: Getty – Contributor

Scientists investigating the event have now claimed that a combination of lightning strikes, wind gusts, low humidity and popping pollen grains could be to blame.

Writing in PLOS One, scientists say that these issues are what caused many people to have an asthma attack after allergen particles were dispersed in the air.

People most at risk from so-called thunderstorm asthma, include people who have asthma which is poorly controlled, those with severe cases of asthma, and people who suffer from seasonal hayfever.

You can also be susceptible to thunderstorm asthma if you have the condition but it has not been diagnosed – this is due to the fact that you will not be taking the correct medication for your illness.

These events are extremely rare and there have been just 22 outbreaks since 1983, ten of which have been in Australia – with experts branding the country a “hotspot” for such actvity.

Senior research scientist at Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO), Kathryn Emmerson, explained what the weather had been like before the event on November 21, 2016.

She said the weather had been above 30C (86F) and very dry.

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What is asthma, what are the symptoms and what causes asthma attacks?

Asthma is a respiratory condition caused by inflammation of the breathing tubes that carry air to and from our lungs, and it currently affects over 5 million people across the UK.

According to the NHS, the main symptoms of asthma are:

  • Wheezing (a whistling sound when breathing)
  • Breathlessness
  • A tight chest
  • Coughing

Although the above symptoms can have a number of causes, they are likely signs of asthma if they happen regularly and keep coming back, are worse at night or early morning, or seem to be in response to an allergen.

The severity of the above symptoms can vary between different people.

When these symptoms suddenly worsen temporarily, it is known as an asthma attack.

Asthma attacks can be caused by allergens, such as animal fur or pollen, cold air, exercise, chest infections or other irritants – such as cigarette smoke.

Allergies and asthma often go together.

Asthma caused by an allergic reaction is known as “allergic asthma”.

In terms of the pollen count, at that time the air was holding 133.4 pollen grains per cubic yard – this would be a peak pollen count for November in Australia.

Speaking to Live Science she said: “The event occurred at the peak of the hay fever season, and most patients were suffering with an allergic response in their airways.”

She added that rye grass pollen grains had been the main culprit behind the outbreak and that usually they are too large to reach the lungs as they usually get caught in the nose and throat – triggering mild asthma symptoms.

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But because of the storm these particles were broken down and were able to reach the lungs.

Due to the dry weather, many people remained outside during this storm, which explains why hospitals in Melbourne and nearby Geelong saw a 672 per cent increase in people presenting at A&E.

The state coroner said the storm had caused ten deaths in total.

Emmerson and her team have since been working on a tool that will be able to predict when a asthma thunderstorm is coming.

She said that factors such as high humidity, were not a helpful gauge when it came to predicting the storms.

Emmerson added: “We haven’t fully cracked the code on the triggers of thunderstorm asthma yet.”

She added that for now, the best way to track such events is track severe wind gusts and the levels of grass pollen in the air.

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