The 30-Hour Australian Epidemic Waiting to Wallop America

David McGann spent most of his Monday night being pinned down by an elephant.

At least that's what the immense pressure on his chest felt like... As he recounted to ABC News the next day, on November 22, 2016, "It was insane. I couldn't get off the couch for three hours last night just due to shortness of breath."

But he wasn't alone... Less than 20 miles away in another suburb of Melbourne, Australia, emergency-room nurse Liz Borowik saw her adult son suddenly get sick. He had been barbecuing out back until the weather turned stormy. When he came indoors, he was having trouble breathing and talking. As she told the media, "He couldn't put two words together, so I thought we need[ed] to go to a hospital."

Elsewhere in Melbourne, then-12-year-old Brennan McAloon couldn't stop wheezing, coughing, and feeling a terrible tightness in his chest. But he and his mom were turned away at the local clinic – only because others had beaten them there...

Thousands of panicked folks – both young and old – were fighting to breathe. And they were flooding community health clinics and emergency departments. Those who couldn't make it called for help...

Ambulance requests surged, spiking to 200 calls in a 15-minute period. It was more than six times the norm. Operators were getting a call every 4.5 seconds at one point. One major city hospital saw 132 ambulance arrivals from 6:30 pm to midnight, more than triple the usual number of 40 for a normal day.

Emergency services became so overwhelmed. One of the calls was a 20-year-old woman who died in her front yard while waiting on an ambulance.

The epidemic claimed seven more lives that week... and one more months later. It's estimated that 8,500 people were treated for asthma and asthma-like symptoms: trouble breathing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, and/or wheezing.

That's right... thousands of people simultaneously suffered asthma attacks in a 30-hour period.

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that changes your airways over time. You end up having trouble breathing because...

  • Your airways narrow because of swelling from inflammation.
  • The inflammation also means lots of mucus production to the point that "mucus plugs" can block airflow.
  • The airways become extremely sensitive to triggers.
  • Airway muscles thicken abnormally. When triggered, they can overreact and squeeze down on the airway super tight.

But this freak incident wasn't caused by a poisonous gas leak from some factory. Nor was it caused by smoke from a fire.

It was from grass pollen... made into an aerosolized weapon by a thunderstorm.

The people of Melbourne experienced an "epidemic thunderstorm asthma" event.

You'd think all that rain and humidity that comes with a thunderstorm would weigh down airborne pollen grains to clear the air. But the humidity, winds moving up and down, and electricity (from lightning) can make things worse... That's according to a study published last year in the Therapeutic Advances in Respiratory Disease.

Researchers believe that cold air blowing downward gathered up pollen and mold spores. An updraft lifted that whole mess into the clouds. The moisture up there, along with wind and lightning, broke the grains into smaller pieces.

For the grand finale, wind gusts scattered these ruptured pollen grains and mold spores far and wide... And these pollen and mold fragments are tiny enough to get inhaled deep into the lungs to cause asthma-like symptoms in even non-asthmatics.

Researchers also looked at air samples taken at different times that Monday. They saw that the ruptured pollen count spiked by 250% as the storm began in the early evening.

It wasn't the only time a huge epidemic thunderstorm asthma event happened, either... 26 recorded epidemics have happened across the globe, dating back to 1983. And the 2016 Melbourne incident was the deadliest.

(By the way, other kinds of particles this tiny damage more than just your lungs... They can mess with your heart, your brain, and even your bones. Make sure you don't miss the lung-health issue of my other newsletter, Retirement Millionaire. Not a subscriber? Get the details on a trial run of it right here.)

Now, we know asthma tends to flare up in the fall and winter for most folks. It just so happened that it was peak thunderstorm season in Australia back then. (In the southern hemisphere, November is springtime.)

With spring officially having kicked off this past Tuesday here in the U.S., that means we've just entered prime pollen season. Spring and summer are also prime thunderstorm seasons which, as you've just learned, can make matters worse. And if you're very allergic to pollen that a thunderstorm's winds can kick up, you should be extra careful as the weather warms up...

  • Regularly check the forecast so you can get indoors when the winds pick up just before a thunderstorm.
  • Stay indoors and keep the windows closed during thunderstorms (and on days with high pollen counts).
  • Invest in an air purifier with a high-efficiency particulate air ("HEPA") filter that can catch pollutants.
  • Mask up when you venture out on a high-pollen-count day or when you mow the lawn.

Pollen and thunderstorms aren't the only triggers that can worsen asthma symptoms or cause an asthma attack. Some other typical triggers include:

  • Extreme temperatures
  • Air pollution
  • Smoke
  • Indoor pollutants like mold, dust, pet dander, and strong-smelling chemicals in personal-care or household products
  • Stress, anxiety, and extreme emotional reactions like laughing too hard
  • Intense exercise
  • Allergies to certain foods or medications
  • A cold, flu, or lung/sinus infection

Asthma sufferers often carry a rescue inhaler, which they take a couple of puffs from during an asthma attack. The corticosteroids in these inhalers "turn off" certain cells that pump out molecules that cause inflammation. Rescue inhalers have a fast-acting drug that relaxes, or dilates, the airway muscles for about four to six hours.

Here's what to do if you think you or a loved one is having an asthma attack...

First, call 911 if you don't have a rescue inhaler or if symptoms get worse even after taking puffs from one as directed by your doctor. And in the meantime...

  • Move to a safe place with fresh air if smoke or dust happened to trigger your attack.
  • Try to stay calm – anxiety can worsen symptoms.
  • Sit upright, as straight as you can. Your lungs work best when you're standing or sitting up.
  • Breathe in and out slowly and steadily. Breathing too quickly and hyperventilating can make symptoms worse.
  • Continue using your rescue inhaler as you wait for help to arrive.

Thankfully, epidemic thunderstorm asthma events are rare. And we haven't seen one in the U.S. But it could happen. So if you have asthma and/or pollen or mold allergies, you might want to enjoy the summer storm from inside your house.

What We're Reading...

Here's to our health, wealth, and a great retirement,

Dr. David Eifrig and the Health & Wealth Bulletin Research Team
March 21, 2024