July 18th, 2018

To Your Health: Thunderstorms are bad news for asthma sufferers

By Gillian Slade on December 11, 2017.

We generally think of rain as cleaning the air, making us want to breathe deeply. If a thunderstorm is part of the equation though it can seriously impact asthma symptoms.

People showing up in emergency rooms with asthma issues increases significantly after a thunderstorm, new research has shown.

During an electric storm pollen is separated into even smaller particles and then spreads, according to research published in the Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology.

The electrical storm pulls pollen up into the atmosphere where there is high humidity in the building thunderclouds, according to Isabella Annesi-Maesano, Pierre Louis Institute of Epidemiology and Public Health in Paris. Those pollen particles are then broken up in the storm and down-drafts force them back to ground level where they spread.

The smaller particles are inhaled more deeply into the lungs than normal and can even affect those who have not had an asthma attack before.

In the first half hour of a thunderstorm, people with pollen allergies breathe in large quantities of these minute pollen particles. As they enter the airway passages they can trigger an allergic reaction and an asthma attack.

The research indicates hospital admissions can increase significantly in these conditions and many are people who have previously not had any asthmatic symptoms.

There was an interesting situation in Melbourne, Australia. in 2016 where more than 8,000 people were taken to emergency rooms with asthma symptoms after a significant thunderstorm. Nine of the people affected died.

On a smaller scale 26 were taken to hospital in 2002 in a U.K. city in similar circumstances.

A total of 640 people presented at hospital in the 30 hours following a thunderstorm in 1994 in London, England. Typically in that area the hospitals would be attending to about 60 people with asthma.

It is worth noting the asthma thunderstorm effect only takes place in spring and summer when pollen levels are higher in general.

You can’t run away from thunderstorms but the researchers suggest staying indoors with windows closed during those conditions.

Asthma is defined as chronic inflammation of the airways that causes coughing, shortness of breath, tightness in the chest and wheezing.

According to 2014 data from Statistics Canada more than eight per cent of Canadians over the age of 12, equivalent to 2.4 million Canadians, have been diagnosed by a health professional as having asthma. That number has been consistent since 2001.

British Columbians have less people with asthma, 7.2 per cent, than the national average and Quebec has more at 9.1 per cent, according to Statistics Canada.

To Your Health is a weekly column by Gillian Slade, health reporter for the News, bringing you news on health issues and research from around the world. You can reach her at gslade@medicinehatnews.com or 403-528-8635.

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