Extreme pollen levels in Victoria prompt allergy and asthma warnings

People with allergies and asthma are warned to be on high alert with extreme pollen levels forecast in Melbourne for Monday (20/11), Wednesday (22/11) and Thursday (23/11).

While the warm weather has its perks, it’s also brought a whole lot of pollen to Victoria.

According to WeatherZone, Melbourne can expect extreme pollen levels for three out of the next four days.

Pollen from grasses, trees and weeds can trigger hay fever and asthma symptoms.

People who are prone to these conditions are urged to have their hay fever and asthma plans ready.

"If you know that you react to these triggers, it may be useful to take an antihistamine each morning with a high count," says Bupa GP Dr Tim Ross.

An extreme pollen count on its own isn’t enough to trigger what’s become known as “thunderstorm asthma,” which is caused by a combination of high pollen and a certain type of thunderstorm.

Image source: Weatherzone Pollen Index. Note - this forecast was updated on Monday 20th November, please check for the latest forecast as they change daily.

The thunderstorm asthma emergency which killed 9 people this time last year, prompted the Victorian government to develop a new world-first thunderstorm asthma alert system.

“Last year’s unprecedented epidemic thunderstorm asthma event was the largest ever recorded in the world. If it happens again, we will be ready,” said Minister for Health Jill Hennessy.

The new forecasting system considers grass pollen forecasts, weather observations and data including wind changes, rainfall, temperature, and grass coverage.

The forecast then identifies the risk of epidemic thunderstorm asthma using a traffic light scale of green (for low), orange (for moderate), and red (for high) – and trigger warnings if required.

To access the forecasts and alerts, download the Vic Emergency App or visit www.emergency.vic.gov.au/prepare.

Thunderstorm asthma doesn’t just affect those who’ve experienced asthma before, even those who've never suffered before can develop asthma symptoms and experience a sudden onset during extreme weather conditions.

This kind of asthma is believed to be triggered by a unique mix of high grass pollen counts leading to the release of massive amounts of pollen particles in the air during a certain type of thunderstorm which involves rapid changes in wind, temperature, and humidity.

Bupa’s Chief Medical Officer Dr Paul Bates says people should educate themselves about what to do in the case of an asthma attack.

Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer at Bupa Australia & New Zealand
First, you need to know the signs. Keep an eye out for symptoms including wheezing, coughing, or shortness of breath.
Dr Paul Bates, Chief Medical Officer at Bupa Australia & New Zealand

“If you’re someone who has experienced asthma in the past, make sure you carry reliever medication such as an inhaler with you at all times."

If someone is experiencing an asthma attack, remember the 4 x 4 x 4 protocol for asthma first aid.

If you notice symptoms are worsening quickly, your lips turn blue or you can’t speak as a result of the symptoms, get someone to call triple zero (000) immediately.

Melbourne is considered to be a global hotspot for thunderstorm asthma, as a result of high rainfall and winds which stir up pollen in the spring.

In November last year, around 8500 people were hospitalised for treatment, and 40 per cent of those who sought medical assistance hadn’t previously been diagnosed with asthma.

But, most of them (90%) did have a history of hay fever, or had an allergy to ryegrass pollen.

Dr Bates says if people believe they’re beginning to experience thunderstorm asthma but they don’t have an inhaler, they should speak to a pharmacist or call their doctor straight away.

“Keep an eye on the weather too. If it’s a day with a high pollen count, wind and rain, have your asthma action plan ready,” he says.

“And if you have asthma but don’t have an asthma action plan already, make an appointment with your GP to develop one tailored especially for you.”

Find out more about the signs and symptoms of an asthma attack.

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