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Thunder Leads to Wheeze

Storms may push pollen to ground level, triggering asthma, says study

WEDNESDAY, June 13, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you think a thunderstorm washes out the pollen and gives those with breathing problems a breath of fresh air, think again. Some people actually get worse after a storm.

Emergency rooms visits by asthmatics increase after a thunderstorm, says research from Australia. Why is that?

"Basically, we think the thunderstorm passes over areas rich in rye grass pollen, lifts the pollen grains into the atmosphere and then drives them down to ground level -- people's breathing zone -- in high concentration," says Guy Marks, a research fellow at the Institute of Respiratory Medicine in Sydney, Australia. "In addition, moisture in the thunderstorm ruptures large pollen grains, releasing small, allergen-containing starch granules small enough to be inhalable."

To see whether thunderstorms set off bouts of asthma, Marks and his colleagues collected emergency-room and weather records from six towns in southeastern Australia. Comparing the data, Marks found thunderstorms were associated with 33 percent of the days when emergency-room attendance by asthmatics soared.

Testing the air during one severe epidemic of asthma visits to the ER in Wagga Wagga, Australia, showed that grass pollen had increased by four to 12 times what it was before the storm, Marks says.

"There has been anecdotal reports of the association between asthma and thunderstorms for years," Marks explains. "And the subject has been extensively investigated in Australia and the United Kingdom. Our interest was stimulated by one severe episode in Wagga Wagga, in which 215 people presented to the emergency room over a period of a few hours."

An estimated 17 million Americans have asthma, but many don't know it or don't know how to control it, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. Asthma can occur at any age, but is more common in children. Medical expenses and other costs associated with asthma run more than $6 billion a year.

Asthma symptoms include coughing, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath. An attack often is triggered by allergens like pollens, dust and animal dander; certain drugs and food additives; viral respiratory infections, or even physical exertion.

"More research is required to see if staying indoors at the time of a thunderstorm does actually make a difference," Marks says. "However, the real take-home message of this research is that high-dose allergen exposure can cause severe attacks of asthma."

This is excellent asthma research from one of the top asthma research outfits in the world, says Dr. Tom Plaut, an asthma expert based in Amherst, Mass., and author of the Asthma Guide for People of All Ages.

"This research makes a lot of sense to me," Plaut continues. "Eighty percent of people with asthma have allergies, compared to the nation as a whole, where one in five have allergies. The question with asthma is, how often is the allergy the inciting factor?" he asks.

"We have yet to find that answer out," he adds. "During certain seasons, and especially in the pollen season, allergy seems to be a major, major trigger."

What To Do

For more on asthma and weather, visit Harvard University. To learn more about asthma and ways to prevent flare-ups, visit the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology.

And here are some more HealthDay stories on asthma.

SOURCES: Interviews with Guy Marks, MBBS, Ph.D., FRACP, research fellow, Institute of Respiratory Medicine, Sydney, Australia; Tom Plaut, M.D., asthma expert, Amherst, Mass., author of The Asthma Guide for People of All Ages
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