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Thunderstorms can spark asthma attacks

| April 25, 2022 1:08 AM

It’s thunderstorm season across North Idaho and the rest of the Inland Northwest. Columns in previous weeks have talked about the dangers and conditions experienced during this phenomenon, but amazingly, besides being struck by lightning, there is another potential health hazard associated with these events.

Not many of us have heard about this type of health situation associated with thunderstorm activity. According to the American Lung Association and other health websites, a thunderstorm can actually make someone sick. It’s a rare phenomenon called “thunderstorm asthma,” and if conditions are aligned perfectly, a thunderstorm can trigger a minor to a major asthma attack.

Fortunately, there haven’t been any reported incidents of thunderstorm asthma in our region. However, this event became recognized in 1983, when violent thunderstorms moved across Birmingham, England, during the season of high pollen counts resulting in increased asthma attacks. In 1987, Melbourne, Australia, experienced widespread thunderstorms that were also linked to a dramatic increase in asthma incidents. Since the late 1980s, there have been additional reports of asthma attacks associated with strong thunderstorm activity.

The phenomenon became far more serious in 2016, when another band of strong thunderstorms developed across southeastern Australia and led to a major outbreak of asthma attacks. In Melbourne, over 8,000 people went to the emergency room, and eight others died. The Australian health system in Melbourne was overwhelmed in a very short period of time.

Thunderstorm asthma was a big mystery until researchers at the University of Georgia published their findings of the 2016 event in the Journal of Applied Meteorology and Climatology. For the longest time, it was believed that people who were susceptible to asthma and allergies would be helped by the associated rainfall with thunderstorms, as the pollen was being washed out of the air.

However, the study from researchers and a summary also published by the American Lung Association says the humidity and electricity, combined with particular airflow patterns, would lead to these attacks.

With thunderstorm activity, there are often strong updrafts and downdrafts of air. Within a region of downdrafts of colder air, the particles of pollen and mold spores become more concentrated before being lifted by updrafts into the clouds.

As the pollen and spores are lifted, the wind, humidity and, in some cases, lightning flashes will provide the “perfect storm” to break apart the pollen and spores into much smaller pieces. As these particles are sent back to the ground, they can pass into the nose and into the lungs much easier.

Since the late 1980s, there have been approximately 20 occasions of thunderstorm asthma. These events have occurred in Australia, Italy, Canada, the Middle East, China and the United Kingdom. So far, there haven’t been any reported cases in the U.S., but that doesn’t mean individuals have not had asthma issues during thunderstorm activity.

In many of these confirmed locations, especially in Australia, if strong to severe weather conditions are in the forecast, thunderstorm asthma warnings will be issued.

LOCAL WEATHER

In terms of our local weather, after eight straight days of temperatures below 50 degrees from April 10-17, highs managed to climb back into the 50s last week, but that is still below normal levels. Our normal highs at this time of year are in the lower 60s in Coeur d’Alene. Overall, we should continue to see readings below normal levels through the end of the month despite the recent and brief warmup.

April will end up being a wet month across North Idaho as we’re well above the normal of 1.77 inches. However, at Spokane International Airport, moisture totals have been near to below normal levels through late last week as less than an inch of rain and melted snow has been reported this month.

The airport also received 2.1 inches of snow for April, which takes their snowfall seasonal total to 38.8 inches. Even if Spokane receives a few more flakes of snow this month, they will likely end up below the seasonal normal of about 45 inches.

At Cliff’s station, thanks to the big snows earlier this month, the snowfall total is at 66.7 inches, which is slightly below the 69.8-inch normal. Despite the cooler-than-normal sea-surface temperature event, La Nina, snowfall totals were mostly below-normal across the region.

During La Nina years, the Northwest typically experiences above-normal snowfall totals, but this season hasn’t been typical.

We started off strong with over 50 inches of snow at Cliff’s station at the beginning of the year. Then, the snow faucet practically shut off during the critical snowfall period from mid-January through March. The cold and snowy pattern returned in April. If this pattern had developed in March, I believe our snowfall totals would have been higher.

The rest of April and at least early- to mid-May should continue to have more storms parade across the Inland Northwest. Therefore, moisture totals are expected to remain above-normal before much drier and warmer weather returns in the late spring and early summer. Stay tuned.

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Contact Randy Mann at randy@longrangeweather.com

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