When allergy season is in full swing, many of us hope that a good rain will bring us relief by washing away allergens, like pollen and mold, out of the air. Sadly, this is not necessarily true. New research is emerging that there may be a few people who actually suffer increased symptoms when the rain kicks up into a thunderstorm. Studies show that during thunderstorms there is an increase in visits to the emergency room for asthma related symptoms.

The theories as to what might be the cause of this are varied at this point. Scientists aren’t sure of the exact reason, but here are a few possibilities:

  • Thunderstorms break up larger allergen particles into smaller ones. Generally speaking, allergens like weeds, grasses and mold consist of large particles that most people naturally filter out before causing distress. Thunderstorms can break these particles up making them more easily inhaled, thereby causing an allergic reaction.
  • Lightning causes tiny particles to have a charge that allows allergens to stick to the lungs.
  • Heavy winds brought about by thunderstorms stir up ground based molds that are not typically airborne. This can cause exposure to them more easily in people that might be sensitive to them.

Exact causes of thunderstorm asthma are hard to track down because thunderstorms are usually short lived events. The fact that this is a rare reaction among people makes it even more difficult on researchers who are trying to determine a cause. They do have some ideas as to who might be most susceptible to this rare type of asthma.

  • People with mild asthma or allergies. Typically these people are undiagnosed and don’t have a prescription for a rescue inhaler.
  • People with no symptoms of asthma who experience hay fever. Typically the particles are too large to get to the lungs and cause discomfort in the sinuses. During thunderstorms, smaller particles get into the lungs causing an asthmatic response.

Surprisingly, people who are diagnosed and treated asthmatics aren’t as easily affected by thunderstorms. Scientists aren’t really sure why this is, but studies support that most cases of hospital visits due to thunderstorm asthma are previously undiagnosed.

While not being predictable, people with mild allergies or asthma might want to take extra care during thunderstorms. You never know when thunderstorm asthma might cause a reaction.

By Ramie A Tritt, MD, President, Atlanta ENT