Anyone familiar with hay fever knows that respiratory symptoms are affected by the weather. Extreme weather can irritate more than milder weather in the airways. The weather can impact pollen counts. Many times we hear incidents such as thunderstorms trigger asthma attacks in people with weak hearts or lungs or people with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). When hard rain from a thunderstorm reaches pollen grains, it can break them up. This makes them smaller and easier to inhale. The wind from the storm then takes the pollen grains where they can be inhaled, into your lungs. Thunderstorm asthma is an occurrence that can affect several individuals at once. An incident in Melbourne, Australia, in November 2016 affected thousands.

The degree to which storms affect people with chronic lung disease, especially the form that affects the way air moves in and out of the lungs, is one unanswered question. Problems with airway narrowing describe these “obstructive lung diseases.” Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease are the most common obstructive lung diseases (COPD). Patients with lung disease will potentially have more frequent, serious worsening of symptoms that include emergency department visits as the temperature changes. In these patients, this will also raise the burden of illness and increase the tension on our healthcare system. 

The study examined the relationship between thunderstorms and COPD, asthma symptoms

Researchers studied Medicare claims from 1999 to 2012 in a new article published in JAMA Internal Medicine to study whether storms contributed to a rise in emergency room visits linked to respiratory illness in patients with obstructive lung disease. The study involved 46,581,214 patients over the age of 65 who, due to respiratory complaints, had 22,118,934 emergency room visits. Obstructive pulmonary disease was diagnosed in 43.6% of patients, including asthma (10.5%), COPD (26.5%), and mixed asthma and COPD (6.6 percent ). 

Some key findings of the study:

  • There were no variations between the various types of pulmonary obstructive disease. People with asthma had a 1.1 percent rise relative to the normal amount of emergency room visits, whereas patients with COPD and combined COPD and asthma saw a 1.2 percent increase on the day before the storm.
  • For potential causes, the authors looked at why symptoms intensified during the stormy season. A higher concentration of fine particulate matter before storms was found to correlate with increased visits to the emergency department. Up until after the storms had ended, levels of pollen and other air contaminants did not change, making it less likely that these factors were responsible for increased respiratory symptoms.

Does this suggest that every time they hear thunder rumbling, people living with asthma should hold their breath? Not necessarily, however. First of all, these particular meteorological events are very rare and rely on the right combination of weather, allergens, and a population that is susceptible. One day models of these elements could lead to a way to predict when thunderstorm asthma could occur and enable alerts to be issued by health officials. Before then, it may be prudent to avoid outdoor activities after a, particularly intense thunderstorm if you have asthma and are susceptible to allergens such as pollen.