Last updated on 18/11/2020

Melbourne’s cultural leaders urged to help their communities stay safe from thunderstorm asthma

People from Indian, Sri-Lankan and south-east Asian ethnicity are at high risk to thunderstorm asthma but may not know it.

Asthma Australia has compiled multi-lingual resources about how to stay safe from thunderstorm asthma and is appealing to religious, community leaders and health workers in Victoria and south western New South Wales to share them widely. They are available on their website here (

Four years ago, on 21 November 2016, the world’s largest epidemic thunderstorm asthma event ever recorded killed ten people, six were people from Indian, Sri Lankan and southeast Asian ethnicity

Within 30 hours of the storm, there were 3365 (672%) excess respiratory-related presentations to emergency departments, and 476 (992%) excess asthma-related admissions to hospital, 39were found to be individuals of Indian or Sri Lankan birth and south-east Asian birth.

This pollen season comes with expert warnings of another thunderstorm asthma event occurring due to the La Nina weather pattern, with a several warnings already issued this month in Victoria, New South Wales and Canberra.

Anyone with hay fever sensitive to grass pollens (approximately one in five) or asthma (one in nine) is at risk.

“Many people, particularly recent migrants to Australia, may not know they are sensitive to Australian pollens,” said CEO of Asthma Australia, Michele Goldman. “We are concerned for their safety if another event were to unfold.”

In 2016, 30% of people presenting to hospital with breathing problems from thunderstorm asthma had never experienced asthma symptoms before.

“Hospital Emergency Departments and ambulance services were overwhelmed,” Ms Goldman said.

To prevent a potential repeat of the catastrophic impact in 2016, Asthma Australia’s multi-lingual resources help to explain who is at risk and how to stay safe from thunderstorm asthma.

“We are asking cultural leaders and communicators who have connections in the Indian, Sri-Lankan and south-east Asian communities to share this life-saving information widely,” Ms Goldman said.

A quarter of all Melbourne residents are from these backgrounds.

Anyone who sneezes, gets a runny nose, itchy or watery eyes, or has difficulty breathing at this time of year could have seasonal hay fever or asthma placing them at highest risk of thunderstorm asthma.

“Absolutely everyone needs to be thunderstorm asthma aware and prepared. It could save your life or someone you love,” she added.

People who treat their asthma and hay fever with preventative medication do better overall and are more protected from thunderstorm asthma.

Please visit your doctor if you have asthma or hay fever symptoms to find out if you’re at risk.

To prepare for a thunderstorm asthma, people living in Victoria and south western NSW are advised to:

  • Find out if you are at risk. Get tested at your doctors for pollen allergies and asthma.
  • Manage your asthma and hay fever with daily preventative treatment.
  • Check warnings. Useful apps to download for regular warnings include the Melbourne Pollen Count, AirRater App or Wagga Wagga SMS alerts if you live in the Riverina region.
  • Have an asthma reliever on hand.

Heed warnings and act quickly if required:

  • Stay inside with windows and doors closed to completely avoid the pollens, if you have an air conditioner turn it on to recirculate.
  • Have an in-date asthma reliever puffer on hand (and spacer if a puffer device).
  • Follow your asthma action plan.
  • If you have asthma symptoms start asthma first aid, if symptoms worsen call and ambulance.
  • If you call an ambulance and you receive a message informing you of a delay, go directly to your nearest medical centre or hospital for assistance. Do not wait. 

Thunderstorm asthma symptoms include: 

  • Being short of breath; wheezing; coughing; a tight feeling in the chest (or a sore tummy in young children).
  • You may start to feel anxious and get easily out of breath doing normal activity.
  • If you are gasping for breath, can’t talk in a full sentence, reliever medication is not lasting or helping or if a loved one is drowsy/confused or has blue lips, call Triple Zero (000) immediately and commence asthma first aid.