The Royal Australian College of GPs is urging the community to know the risks, signs, and appropriate steps to take as pollen levels rise and the prospect of thunderstorm asthma looms large.
Thunderstorm asthma claimed ten lives and triggered a 672 per cent rise in respiratory-related presentations to Melbourne and Geelong public hospitals during one tragic event in 2016, and has previously struck many communities repeatedly, including Wagga Wagga and surrounding areas. It can affect anyone, even those who don’t have a known history of asthma and have never experienced asthma symptoms.
Thunderstorm asthma take places when thunderstorms occur during high pollen periods, usually from October to December in Victoria and New South Wales. Symptoms include wheezing, chest tightness, difficulty breathing and coughing.
Along with people with asthma, those with allergic rhinitis or ryegrass and pollen allergy are at higher risk. It can also impact people with no history of asthma or allergy, so everyone must be vigilant.
The RACGP’s own fact sheet has useful tips for GPs and general practice staff on how to best help patients at risk of thunderstorm asthma.
RACGP President, Adjunct Professor Karen Price, said it was vital for patients to be prepared. ‘Be alert and be prepared because this promises to be a particularly dangerous thunderstorm asthma season,’ she said.
‘Recent high rainfall levels and warm, humid weather has allowed grass to bloom, and thunderstorm asthma events could prove deadly, just like in 2016. We have already had thunderstorm asthma warnings issued for the Wimmera in the state’s west as well as the Mallee district and I suspect that will only be the beginning.
‘There is no need to be unnecessarily alarmed but it is important to take this seriously and there are positive steps you should take without delay. People who suffer from hay fever as well as current, past, or undiagnosed asthmatics are at increased risk and should be prepared to carefully monitor and manage symptoms in the months ahead,’ she said.
‘We strongly recommend you monitor the thunderstorm asthma risk, carry your reliever with you at all times, take your preventive medication even if asthma symptoms aren’t present, avoid being outdoors when storms strike or during the winds that often precede storm events and follow your asthma action plan to the letter,’ said Adjunct Professor Price.
Got a plan?
‘If you don’t have an asthma action plan now is a great opportunity to arrange one,’ she said. ‘So, book a consult with your GP and talk about how to best manage your asthma and be prepared for potential thunderstorm asthma events this spring and summer.’
She said it was also useful for those with high-risk factors to regularly check official thunderstorm asthma risk forecasts, and related information on thunderstorm asthma from NSW Health. ‘By taking these straightforward but vital steps you can stay safe if and when thunderstorm asthma strikes.’
The RACGP President also said that practices can play an important role in keeping patients safe through education and awareness.
‘I’m sure many GPs and general practices team will take full advantage of the RACGP’s helpful thunderstorm asthma resource and continue to do everything possible to help keep people safe,’ she said.
‘That includes displaying notices in clinics with facts and information about thunderstorm asthma emphasising that it can affect people with no prior history of asthma and developing robust asthma action plans with patients who have allergic rhinitis or ryegrass or pollen allergies despite no known history of asthma.’
‘GPs can also raise the topic of thunderstorm asthma and make sure that patients have access to preventers and relievers as part of their asthma plan,’ said Adjunct Professor Price.
‘The 2016 event showed the importance of increasing awareness in the general community, as people with no known history of asthma were affected.
‘It’s important people are prepared when there is a possibility of high pollen counts and thunderstorms occurring at the same time, and that more people recognise the symptoms of an asthma attack so they are better prepared to help people who may be affected,’ she said.
‘By working together and being prepared we can save lives in coming months. No one can 100 per cent predict when thunderstorm asthma will strike, but we can prevent harm by being aware of the dangers and taking sensible precautions.’