Thunderstorms and Breathing

When I was a small child, I was deathly afraid of thunderstorms. According to my late mother, at the first crack of lightning and thunder, Max, the family German Shepherd, and I would immediately head downstairs to the basement and cower under the blankets down there until the danger had passed. Or at least until we thought it had.

Storms & hospitalizations

I know a lot of folks who felt the same way about storms but I’m not sure if I met anyone who went to the extremes of Max and me. That was the 1960’s and 70’s. Now, according to a research letter published in August 2020, we discover that there is a strong link between acute respiratory emergency room visits and thunderstorms.1 As a result, what merely posed fear in young boys and dogs now is expected to adversely affect respiratory health for many, particularly those susceptible to respiratory health difficulties.

The article summarizes by saying: “Although large-scale evidence is limited, vulnerable populations, such as older adults or those with common chronic respiratory diseases, like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), are expected to be susceptible to negative health effects from these changes.”1

The relationship between the two

What appears to be happening is that inside a storm, downdrafts of cold air send spores of mold and pollen high into the clouds where humidity levels and lightning breach them.5 They begin to return to the ground as much smaller pieces and those tiny particles pass through the nose and sinuses into the lungs.

More on this topic

Although the study used Medicare data for those 65 years and older, the danger is just as real for younger people with severe respiratory illnesses, said study author Dr. Anupam Jena, an associate professor of health care policy at Harvard Medical School: "In our study, we found that pollen didn't rise in the days before the thunderstorm, which makes it odd to then attribute the increase in hospitalizations to pollen, at least exclusively."2 "Prior studies suggest that rapid temperature increases can precipitate respiratory problems, and we observed changes in temperature in the days prior to thunderstorms," he added.

According to Dr. Jena, this was a study of thousands of thunderstorms occurring across the US, matched to data on hospitalizations, making these findings potentially more generalizable than previous studies on the same topic.3

What is thunderstorm asthma?

The phenomenon of "thunderstorm asthma" was first recorded in Birmingham, England in 1983 and in Melbourne, Australia in 1987, where widespread waves of asthma attacks appeared to be connected to violent thunderstorms during high pollen counts. It happened again in Melbourne in 2016, killing eight people and sending some 8,000 to the emergency room.4 The study went on to say that 'very strong downdrafts winds' were almost certainly at least partially to blame.5 Let’s hope these events continue to be researched and the results shared with the public in a way that is beneficial to health outcomes.

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