If you're one of those people who aren't the least bit scared of thunderstorms (and if you actually love watching a good one roll through on a hot summer day), you might be in for a surprise. That awe-inspiring nature show could kill you—and it has nothing to do with getting struck by lightning.
Thunderstorm asthma, a rare but legit thing, surfaced in news headlines in January when eight Australians in Melbourne (a global hotspot for thunderstorm asthma) died within just one week from the condition. The news popped up during the Northern Hemisphere's winter months (so snow was higher on the list of things to worry about), but now it's the middle of late-summer allergy season and those T-storms come rumbling through every few days. Meaning it's time to get the facts about this crazy condition.
What is thunderstorm asthma?
You may have heard that rain helps "wash pollen out of the air," helping to alleviate allergy symptoms. Bad news: it's v false. Rain actually makes allergies worse by bursting pollen and other allergens into little pieces that float around even more easily. That's where thunderstorm asthma comes in.
"If there's a thunderstorm on a day with peak pollen counts, that already-airborne pollen (or other allergens, such as mold particles) can become fragmented into tiny particles and get deep into your lungs," says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist/immunologist with Allergy & Asthma Network. Essentially, the barometric pressure change that comes with a thunderstorm can cause the particles to burst. "This can cause a severe asthma attack because those tiny particles get into your lower airways, where pollen can't usually go."
Because it's like a super-potent asthma attack, it can get dangerous—and fast. Luckily, the conditions that breed thunderstorm asthma are rare: "Even though pollen is getting more and more common and allergies are becoming more and more common, the coincidence of a thunderstorm occurring right when there is a peak of pollen in the air makes it really rare." (No, you're not imagining it. Allergy season is getting worse.)
Who's at risk?
People who already suffer from pollen allergies and/or asthma are most at risk, but thunderstorm asthma could happen to anyone, says Dr. Parikh. Because your allergies change from year to year and pollen allergies are on the rise, you may not notice symptoms until there's this influx of teeny tiny allergen particles inside your lungs.
Chances are, you're one of the whopping 50 million people in U.S. who suffer from allergies—a majority of which are pollen allergies, according to Dr. Parikh. And that number is continually on the rise. Three theories on why that's happening:
1. Global warming: An inching-warmer temp means longer spring, summer, and fall seasons, which translates to more allergy-prone days. (Here's more on how global warming is making allergies worse.)
2. Higher CO2: Global warming means higher CO2 levels. In case you forgot, plants live off of carbon dioxide (remember second-grade science class? They eat up CO2 and turn it into oxygen). Because there's an abundance of "plant food," plants are becoming more and more robust, and their pollen is becoming more potent—creating a kind of "superplant," says Dr. Parikh.
3. The hygiene hypothesis: A theory called the "hygiene hypothesis" basically says that our hyper-clean and antibacterial world is causing a sort of societal immune system crisis. "Areas of the world that are more industrialized and more city/urban environments don't have as much exposure to good soil and good bacteria that help your immune system develop," says Dr. Parikh. "Places like that have more allergies and asthma."
How can you protect yourself?
Just like you seek shelter in a car to avoid getting struck by lightning, you can take precautions to protect yourself from thunderstorm asthma.
If you think you suffer from chronic or seasonal allergies or asthma, talking to a doctor is your number-one priority: "Sit down with your doctor to see if you need a daily inhaler to help keep your lungs open and the inflammation down, if you could get by with an as-needed, seasonal inhaler, or only need a daily allergy pill or antihistamine," she says. (P.S. Asthma might be to blame for your post-workout fatigue.)
In the case of the more acute thunderstorm asthma, "you might be able to feel the warning signs even 10 to 12 hours in advance," says Dr. Parikh, but they might not seem serious at first. If you start to experience any telltale asthma symptoms (coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing), you might want to take action by using any quick-relief medications you have, like inhalers or allergy medications. (If you're coughing after a tough workout, that's a whole other issue.)
If you don't have any emergency meds or if breathing is difficult, seek medical attention quickly. "You shouldn't take it lightly if you're having trouble breathing," says Dr. Parikh.