health

"'Thunderstorm Asthma' was one of my most terrifying health scares."

Two days on, and I’m still not feeling great.

My eyes are swollen and red, I’m wheezing and coughing, and I would be lost without my nasal spray/ allergy eye drops/ Ventolin inhaler combo. I’m tired, knocked about, and feel in need of a good bloody sleep.

All of this because of pollen.

Humble, tiny, microscopic pollen.

Monday night's 'Thunderstorm Asthma' was one of the scarier things I've experienced.

As you have no doubt read, Melbourne has been through some pretty hectic weather.

On Monday evening, we experienced a rare and catastrophic chain of naturally-occuring 'weather events'. Searing 38 degree heat and extreme pollen levels sat heavy during the day, and as the afternoon headed towards evening, dark clouds moved overhead.

Us hayfever sufferers rejoiced at the idea of a cool change. Little did we know that the swirling storm winds were picking up the pollen and creating, essentially, a hayfever torture chamber.

As the sun set, residents across the city begun to experience tightness in the chest, wheezing, and other asthma symptoms. They're calling it, 'Thunderstorm Asthma'.

Robin Auld from Asthma Victoria spoke to the ABC, and says the condition was caused by the change in the size of pollen particles.

"What we understand is the heavy rain causes the rye grass pollen to absorb moisture and they then burst and become much smaller," he said.

"And those smaller particles can be dispersed very easily by wind over quite a distance. It's those smaller particles that can then get in through the nose, into the small bronchial tubes in the lungs and that's what causes the allergic reaction."

Normally, the rye grass pollen is much larger and gets trapped in the nose hairs, whereas on Monday they were sucked straight into the throat and lungs.

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The first-hand reality of the Thunder Asthma was this: f*kn terrifying. I'm not an asthma sufferer, and the experience of being unable to breathe was a shock.

The whole day I had been huffing and puffing about the house in a fluster. I was hot and bothered, unable to concentrate, and already battling streaming eyes, itchy face, and sneezing attacks thanks to my omnipresent hayfever.

But as the day got on, I realised something wasn't right. I was coughing so hard that I felt close to throwing up. Cough, cough, cough, cough. The more I coughed, the wheezier I got. The wheezier I got, the more I felt a mild panic.

"Maybe it's the cat?" I gasped to my flatmate.

"You've lived here for almost two months," she replied cautiously. "I don't think you would develop it that suddenly."

I googled 'severe cat allergy'. Seemed about right.

Retreating to my room - "find a cat-free zone" - I lay on my bed and called my friend in Sydney. But just a few minutes into the call I had to hang up, unable to talk through the coughing fits and gasping for air.

The night rolled on and I tossed up whether or not to call my father, a doctor, for his advice. But I felt kind of silly, like I was overreacting.

In fact, I was so sure this was just a weird experience that I facetiously asked my friend if you can die from hayfever. Little did I know that two people actually would die on Monday night from breathing complications.

What best friends are for, right? Thanks a lot, @spencepup ???? #extremepollencount #notcoping #allofthetelfast

A photo posted by Maggie Kelly (@maggie_kelly_writer) on

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I figured the best I could do was sleep it off.

But as I dozed to the sound of heavy wheezing coming from my chest, I felt quite panicked about whether or not I was in some kind of health danger.

The next day I felt like I had been hit by a truck. My eyes were practically swollen shut, my throat dry and raspy, and my chest heavy and hurting. I was still wheezing.

It wasn't until I was on the bus, under several layers on industrial-strength makeup, that I read about the 'Thunderstorm Asthma' phenomenon. Huh, I thought. I guess the good news is that I'm not allergic to the cat.

That day, I went and bought a Ventolin asthma inhaler from the chemist, and wasn't surprised when the pharmacist said that they had been rushed that day, and the evening prior, for people seeking the same thing.

"It's bizarre," she said to me. "Most of the people who came in didn't even know what they were looking for, as they weren't asthma sufferers."

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A Melbourne-based scientist has come out to say that Monday's conditions should have been forewarned.

Environmental allergist Professor Cenk Suphioglu of Deakin University discovered and coined the phrase 'Thunderstorm Asthma' back in 1992. Professor Suphioglu says the public could - and should - have been warned about the scary conditions.

His Deakin AIRwatch facility was established in 2012 by the University’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences, and covers a large area of Melbourne to allow for highly accurate testing.

“The forecasts cover a 20-50km radius of the (Waurn Ponds and Burwood) campuses, making the website a great source of information for not only Deakin students and staff, but also the community,” Professor Suphioglu said to The Geelong Advisor.

The facility had shown a high risk of a thunderstorm asthma based on Monday’s conditions.

The fallout from Monday's storm has been a sombre one, with 2,000 Melbourne residents requiring ambulance services, 200 people hospitalised, and two people dead.

Almost everyone I've spoken to has recounted a similar 'scary' experience. Not being able to breathe is perhaps the most terrifying thing to happen - and yet, at 9pm on a Monday night before we quite understood the severity of the situation, acting upon it seemed a bizarre decision.

Like, was it bad enough to call an ambulance? Not quite. Would I have raced to a doctor if it had been a bit earlier? Yeah, probably. But instead, as I do with most dramatic situations in my adult life, I just...fell asleep.

Lesson learnt: if something doesn't feel right, act on it. If you suffer hayfever, always keep a ventolin puffer at home just in case. And cat allergies? They don't come on all at once. In the space of an hour. On a day with Extreme Level Pollen counts.

Audrey the cat is safe for now, and so am I. But boy oh boy, Melbourne: you've really outdone yourself with batsh*t crazy weather.

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