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Thunderstorms In Australia Cause Mass Asthma Attacks

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A thunderstorm in the Victoria region of Australia triggered an outbreak of severe asthma attacks on Monday, killing four people and sending hundreds to emergency rooms.

The storm prompted respiratory problems even in people who had mild allergies, New York Daily News reports. One Melbourne patient told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “It felt like an elephant had his foot on my chest for about four hours.”

Over 2,000 calls were made to emergency lines in a five-hour period, and ambulances were dispatched like crazy. A director at Ambulance Victoria said, “A lot of people who called last night had never had asthma before.”

Scientists don’t fully know why the thunderstorm created such a sudden panic, but the primary theory is that while rain can lessen asthma symptoms by flushing pollen out of the air, more violent thunderstorms produce bigger raindrops that cause pollen to explode. This, in turn, prompts asthma and allergy attacks.

Dr. David Posner, a pulmonologist at Lenox Hill Hospital, explained,

The pollen absorbs the water and bursts into microscopic particles that are hard to detect, so the pollen count is suddenly much higher than what you see reported.

Those suffering from mild asthma can experience worse symptoms.

The exploding pollen is more easily inhaled and go deeper into the lungs, causing asthma attacks and respiratory problems in people who don’t have asthma, the BBC says.

This outbreak in Melbourne is believed to have been caused by a sudden onslaught of rye-pollen particles in the air, which happened in 2000. A study found that in Southern Australia, people with a history of rye grass and hay fever allergies suffered worse during October, which is springtime in Australia and the common time for thunderstorms to occur.

In 1994, a similar event took place in London: 640 people with asthma were admitted to hospitals, 280 of whom had never had asthma before.

In addition, high and fast winds spread these allergens over a wider area, causing them to linger in the air for 24 hours.

Posner said, “What happens is, people with only mild asthma, or who have never had such a large pollen exposure before, are often not on the anti-inflammatory drugs or steroids that protect them against allergen exposure.” He added, “So then they have a thunderstorm that suddenly spreads all of this pollen around, and they have a particularly bad reaction.”

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