Pollen can trigger ‘asthma storm’, even if you don’t normally have asthma: ScienceAlert

Climate change has caused melting icebergs, floods and landslides. It can also cause pollen levels to increase, extend the length of the pollen season, and cause more pollen-related health problems.

Pollen grains that land on the moist membranes of the nose or eyes cause “hay fever” (allergic rhinitis) in one in five people. This often leads to a runny or stuffy nose and itchy eyes.

During the pollen season, people with asthma are at greater risk of an exacerbation.

Pollen can also trigger an asthma attack, even in those undiagnosed with asthma and hay fever.

What is asthma attack?

Thunderstorms cause the temperature to drop and the humidity to rise sharply. This can cause whole grass pollen grains to break down into particles that are tiny enough to penetrate deeper into the lungs, which causes an asthma attack.

Because of this, many people – even those without known asthma – can be affected.

The largest incident of storm-related asthma occurred in Melbourne during the 2016 grass pollen season – around 10,000 people were affected and hospital emergency departments were overcapacity by at least 3,000 respiratory-related cases. Unfortunately, ten people also died of asthma that night.

Who is at risk of an asthma attack?

Even people with no history of asthma are at risk of an asthma attack. However, research has shown that some people may be more sensitive to pollen than others. This includes:

In our research, we found people with coexisting allergic conditions (such as asthma and hay fever) to be more affected by pollen compared to those with individual allergic conditions (such as asthma alone).

How else can pollen do harm?

Even outside of storms, pollen alone can cause asthma attacks that require hospitalization, respiratory symptoms such as wheezing and runny nose, and reduced lung function, making it difficult to breathe.

Despite the low mortality rate, allergic asthma and hay fever can cause further burdens, such as additional health care costs and poorer physical and mental health.

Our yet-to-be-published research has shown that grass pollen can trigger a general state of heightened immune responses, leading to an increased risk of eczema flare-ups in children.

Other studies have shown that children with eczema experience more symptoms, such as a higher intensity of itching and rash on days with high levels of grass pollen.

How can you prepare?

So, what can you do to prepare for grass pollen season and the threat of asthma from thunderstorms?

  • Download your state’s emergency services app, such as the Victorian Emergency App, which can provide asthma alerts for storms
  • Track Pollen Count (see below for helpful websites)
  • Keep doors and windows closed on high pollen days
  • Use air purifiers
  • Stay indoors during high pollen counts or thunderstorm asthma alerts
  • Plant hypoallergenic flowers if you have a garden
  • Continue to wear a face mask. Masks have been shown to be very effective in reducing the risk of contracting COVID-19 and respiratory symptoms caused by pollen
  • Take anti-asthma medication. Relief medications are available without a prescription. Preventive drugs offer much stronger protection, but require a doctor’s prescription. They should also be used prophylactically in case of asthma caused by pollen or in severe hay fever, to prevent asthma from storm
  • Take antihistamines like Zyrtec, which can be used both as needed and more regularly during pollen season. However, it does not cure or prevent asthma.

If you know you have asthma, a grass allergy, or a pollen allergy, you are at risk for an asthma attack. In addition to taking advantage of warning systems and staying out of the storm, you should see your doctor and keep an asthma inhaler on hand during pollen season to be safe. Your doctor can advise you on the right treatment.

Research, including our own, has shown that exposure to pollen can have a delayed effect on the lungs and airways. This means that sometimes asthma attacks or respiratory symptoms can occur a few days after exposure. So if you forget to take preventive medicine, it’s not too late. However, go to hospital if it becomes serious.

Check out the following sites for useful daily pollen information in Australia: AirRater or AusPollen.

Shyamali Dharmage, NHMRC Professorial Fellow, The University of Melbourne; Jo Douglass, Professor of Medicine at the University of Melbourne and Sabrina Idrose, PhD Candidate at the University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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