Factsheet

Thunderstorm asthma

By the last weekend of September, you should be taking your hay fever nasal spray, asthma preventer, or both – and you shouldn’t stop until New Year’s Day (most adults with asthma do need to take a preventer all year, not just in springtime).

What is thunderstorm asthma?

Thunderstorm asthma can happen suddenly to people in spring or summer when there is a lot of pollen in the air and the weather is hot, dry, windy and stormy.

People with asthma and/or hay fever need extra protection to avoid thunderstorm asthma between September and January in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. This means using preventer medicine every day and always having a reliever inhaler (blue puffer) ready. See your doctor to get the best asthma and/or hay fever medication plan.

Spring thunderstorm weather can cause pollen grains to burst into tiny pieces and the wind then blows them around us. When people breathe in these tiny pieces of pollen they can get deep inside the lungs and trigger an asthma attack.

Spring weather can also lead to breathing problems for people who get seasonal hay fever. People who wheeze and sneeze with hay fever from pollens during spring are more likely to get thunderstorm asthma even if they haven't had asthma before.

November 2016: Victorian Thunderstorm Asthma Event

On Monday 21 November 2016, severe thunderstorm activity in Victoria led to thousands of people suddenly having asthma attacks and finding it hard to breathe. Because so many people needed urgent asthma treatment at one time, it was hard for ambulance and hospital emergency rooms to help everyone.

From that terrible event we learned that thunderstorm asthma can affect people living in city or country areas, even if they've never had asthma. We also learned that some groups of people are much more likely to get thunderstorm asthma.

People more likely to get thunderstorm asthma

  • Those who get asthma and seasonal hay fever
  • Those with hay fever who have never had asthma
  • Those with past asthma or unrecognised asthma

Common symptoms of asthma

  • Wheezing - a whistling sound coming from the chest while you are breathing
  • Breathlessness
  • A feeling of tightness in the chest
  • A persistent cough

Asthma symptoms can be different for different people.

A person's asthma symptoms can also change - sometimes there are no symptoms, like when our asthma is well controlled by preventer medication or when allergy triggers aren't around.

Common symptoms of seasonal hay fever

  • Runny nose
  • Itchy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Itchy, watery eyes

People with springtime hay fever be aware

If you already have springtime hay fever, you could suddenly get an asthma attack if you are outside in gusty wind during a thunderstorm in a place where there is ryegrass pollen in the air (most of south-eastern Australia). This can happen even if you don't have asthma. The risk is highest between October and the end of December. 

What you can do to keep safe

  • During spring and early summer, use a doctor prescribed nasal spray medicine (like Avamys, Azonaire, Beconase, Budamax, Budesonide, Flixonase, Nasonex, Omnaris, Rhinocort, Sensease, Telnase). Start at the beginning of September and keep using it until the end of December.
  • Stay up to date with pollen counts and weather forecasts during spring and early summer so you know if a storm is coming.
  • Just before and during storms with wind gusts, get inside a building or car with the windows shut and the air conditioner switched to recirculate/recycled.

People with asthma be aware

If you have asthma and pollen allergy, you could have a severe asthma attack if you are outside in gusty wind during a springtime thunderstorm in a place where there is ryegrass pollen in the air (most of south-eastern Australia). 

How do I know if I’m allergic to ryegrass pollen without having allergy tests?

If you get asthma or hay fever symptoms more often in spring, then pollen is probably causing your symptoms. If you're not sure, follow the safety steps anyway. 

What you can do to keep safe

  • Always use your preventer medication as much as the doctor advised. Even if you do not normally use a preventer all year, you should use it every day during September to December if you are going to be in an area where there is ryegrass pollen.
  • Always carry your reliever inhaler (blue puffer) too.
  • Keep up to date with pollen counts and weather forecasts during spring and early summer so you know if a storm is coming.
  • Make sure your written asthma action plan is up to date and includes thunderstorm advice - talk to you doctor.
  • Avoid being outdoors just before and during thunderstorms, especially in wind gusts before the rain. Get inside a building or car with the windows shut and the air conditioner switched to recirculate/ recycled.

For more information

First Aid for Asthma Chart - step by step instructions on what to do in an emergency. 

Written asthma action plans 

How-to video library – how to use your inhaler 

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