According to leading respiratory physician Matthew Peters too many people with asthma are taking for granted their regular breathlessness and wheezing as normal, when these are signs their condition is under-treated. And not treating asthma appropriately leaves people vulnerable to severe thunderstorm asthma attacks. With Melbourne headlining the asthma thunderstorm since November, not many are aware that the freak storm has made its way across the country and there have been reports of people suffering from severe asthma attacks following the raging storm. Last night saw the second installation of a thunderstorm in Queensland, so powerful that Energex’s lightning strike counter recorded 1,005,447 hits across southeast Queensland from last Thursday to last night. The recording was before last night’s storm hit.
Last Saturday recorded the most strikes, 335,000 of them, occurred as monster storm cells swept in from the west. Many did not see Queensland’s thunderstorm two nights ago as threatening to those with asthma and if it did, it would have an immediate effect. But for Aizat M. his close observation of his son and quick thinking may have saved his son’s life.
“The day after the thunderstorm, my son started wheezing and coughing profusely. But instead of dismissing it as his twice-a-year-asthma-episodes that would sometimes accompany ice cream treats, I had a suspicion this asthma attack was linked to the storm we had,” he said.
“I read the warnings about thunderstorm asthma and what to do if it happens to someone. So my first instinct was to quickly give him the blue puffer to stop the situation from escalating,” he said, administering two puffs per hour with a maximum of eight per day, as advised by the family physician. Three hours later, the condition deteriorated before improving, and that’s after treatment. Imagine what would have happened if the first line of treatment was not given earlier.
Unlike this family, there are some people with asthma who aren’t even aware they have the condition, and this could have been an added factor in Melbourne, said Matthew Peters, professor of respiratory medicine at Macquarie University.
Although asthma deaths overall in Australia have dropped dramatically in the last 25 years, but poor control of symptoms remains a problem for many people with asthma, reports ABC News.
Many do not have their symptoms managed properly
Research by Professor Peters and others has shown one in four people with asthma do not have their symptoms managed properly.
This is mostly because they are not using regular asthma preventer medication (or not using it properly), leaving them vulnerable to severe asthma events.
While a combination of weather and high pollen counts was thought to be the trigger in Melbourne, vulnerable people could also have bad attacks triggered by things like viruses.
“That group out there with poor current asthma control … that’s a lot of people. They are just sitting ducks.”
Under-treating asthma may also cause lung function to get worse over time, and this may not be reversible.
Asthma occurs when people with sensitive airways respond to certain triggers in the environment, causing their airways to become narrowed, inflamed and to secrete mucus.
In Melbourne, it is thought the cause was a freak combination of rain and winds, which caused pollen to break into tiny particles that were inhaled deep into people’s lungs.
More than 8,500 people sought help in hospital emergency departments, eight people died and one person is still in a critical condition.
Signs of an acute asthma attack
A person having an acute asthma attack (a sudden or severe flare-up of symptoms) will usually:
- Breathe quickly
- Have tightness in their chest
- Feel distressed about not getting enough air
- They may have an audible wheeze but this can disappear in a bad attack because there is little air movement.
- Often they can’t speak or can speak only a few words or in short phrases.
- In extreme cases, they may turn blue from lack of oxygen.
- Treatment is to give Ventolin if you have it, and call an ambulance.
- Key warning signs
- Feeling breathless or wheezy, particularly at night or when trying to exercise, are key signs asthma is poorly controlled, Professor Peters said.
People tended to think ‘Oh everyone with asthma has this’, he said.
“But what people have come to know and accept as normal is not the best achievable in terms of reducing the risk of really bad attacks.”
This means their quality of life is not as good as it could be, but also means they are vulnerable to potentially life-threatening episodes.
“They’re not using enough treatment to get them better and reduce the risk of bad asthma episodes.
“Thunderstorm asthma is an extraordinary event and the deaths are tragic. But I would probably predict most of them were avoidable in some way.”