A storm in Melbourne, Australia, triggered thousands of pollen allergy attacks in the form of asthma, resulting in at least four deaths. The situation was labeled as a health emergency of "unprecedented scale," with more than 8,500 patients registered on Nov. 21 and 22.
On Monday, Nov. 21, there was a heavy rain accompanied by powerful winds that caused the early-spring pollen in the state of Victoria to decompose into smaller particles, sending the pollen count soaring.
The unexpected occurrence caught the medical system off guard since such a high number of patients is not something they have ever been confronted with.
Pollen Allergy - Enhanced During Thunderstorms
On the thunderstorm evening, more than 1,800 calls were made to Ambulance Victoria, roughly six times more than the average number of calls daily.
Among the cases, 200 people suffered from asthma and an additional 600 complained of breathing difficulties, reports Mick Stephenson, executive director of emergency operations at Ambulance Victoria.
"A lot of people who called last night had never had asthma before," Stephenson said.
There is, however, a scientific explanation to this rare phenomenon. A good portion of people who experience "thunderstorm asthma" actually have what is called hay fever — an allergy to pollen or other substances that may be found in the air, as explained by the Australasian Society of Clinical Immunology and Allergy (ASCIA).
The reason why these symptoms aggravate during thunderstorms sometimes is that the pollen grains have the capacity to absorb water rapidly, which allows them to release hundreds of tiny particles that can be carried away with the winds of the storm.
The particles can get very deeply into an individual's lungs when inhaled, triggering asthma attacks even in people who don't usually experience these conditions.
Thunderstorm Asthma - Not The First Case
Other similar cases have also been recorded in the U.K., Canada and the United States, one of the most notable took place in 1994 in London. During the thunderstorm, 10 times the average number of asthma patients called in, totaling 640.
The patients also never had asthma issues before the storm, making it similar to the event that happened in Australia.
As for the activity of pollen particles, winds have been documented to enhance them. A scientific study carried out in 2008 suggested that in a 10-year span there were 3 percent more asthma related cases reported in the aftermath of thunderstorms.