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Hayfever 'hiding' thunderstorm asthma risk

NZ Newswire logoNZ Newswire 27/03/2017 Sarah Wiedersehn

People who suffer from hayfever should have asthma medications in arms reach at all times especially in pollen season, lung experts are advising.

New research presented at the Thoracic Society for Australia and New Zealand (TSANZ) Annual Scientific Meeting in Canberra on Tuesday suggests that a history of hayfever is one of the "greatest" risk factors of thunderstorm asthma.

Dr Daniel Clayton-Chubb says this "hidden" population of Australians are often unaware they're at risk and need to be prepared.

"Severe thunderstorm asthma symptoms can strike rapidly and without warning," he said.

Nine people died in Victoria late last year and over 8500 required emergency hospital care when a freak weather event combining high pollen count with hot winds and sudden downpour led to the release of thousands of tiny allergen particles, triggering sudden and severe asthma attacks.

Those most seriously affected by this phenomenon, known as thunderstorm asthma, were people who were unaware they were at risk of asthma and therefore had no medication to hand.

A study of more than 500 healthcare workers led by the Department of Respiratory and Sleep Medicine, Eastern Health, Victoria, found almost half the respondents with asthma experienced symptoms during the thunderstorm event.

Alarming, 37 per cent of respondents with no prior history of asthma had reported symptoms such as hayfever, shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness and wheeze during the storms.

The study also found that people with a history of sensitivity to environmental aeroallergens such as rye grass or mould were far more likely to report symptoms than those with a history of either no allergy or allergy to dust mite/cats.

Dr Clayton says the research is a "wake up call" for all of Australia, but particularly Victoria as it prepares for its next pollen season.

"Many more people than previously thought are at risk of sudden, unforeseen asthma attack," he said.

"The key message from our work is that anyone with hayfever should ensure that they have ready access to quick-acting asthma treatments such as bronchodilators at all times, but particularly in pollen season or if thunderstorms are predicted," Dr Clayton-Chubb advised.

Researcher Professor Guy Marks says people already with asthma are encouraged to continue to use their preventer inhalers during spring and summer so they remain prepared in the event of such unpredictable events.

"Epidemics of acute respiratory illness can occur unpredictably and have the capacity to spread rapidly over a wide area. A range of environmental causes may trigger these (thunderstorms)," Prof Marks said.

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