Thunderstorm asthma crisis in Melbourne

male patient with nebuliser

Like every Emergency Department in Victoria, Monday night was an unexpectedly busy-to-bursting night with many people attending Epworth Richmond and Epworth Geelong Emergency Departments and several patients admitted with severe respiratory issues to ICU and respiratory wards.

Director of Emergency Medicine at Epworth Richmond, Associate Professor Ron Sultana, said Epworth Richmond saw more than 120 patients overnight, with about 45 people presenting with respiratory illness.

“We took some overflow cases from other hospitals, but we were also at capacity. In my 23 years as a doctor, I have never experienced anything like this. While most patients responded well to the treatment provided, some cases were so serious they required admission to hospital for further treatment and management.

“Respiratory distress can be a serious condition and people affected should seek medical advice. Thunderstorm Asthma is a real medical phenomenon. It is caused by high concentrations of pollen and other particles in the air and affects mainly people who suffer from asthma and/or hay fever. However, some people who may not have had asthma before may react to the high levels of allergens in the air and show symptoms”, A/Prof Sultana said.

Director of Emergency Medicine at Epworth Geelong, Dr Matt Ryan, reported more people attending the Emergency Department in Waurn Ponds up until it closed at midnight, than had attended in a single day since it opened on 4 July, this year. He advises that people experiencing any breathing problems should phone 000 for an ambulance or contact an Emergency Department for immediate advice and help.

Department of Health & Human Services officials have acknowledged the work of all the Emergency Departments across Victoria including the private hospital Emergency Departments in managing the thunderstorm asthma crisis this week.

What to do when thunderstorm asthma strikes again?

If you get hayfever (sneezing, running or blocked nose and itchy eyes) during spring, you are at risk from thunderstorm asthma, even if you have never previously suffered asthma. In Melbourne, thunderstorm asthma epidemics usually happen in November. Epworth and Austin Health Respiratory Physicianand Allergist Dr Michael Sutherland, who published a report on the 2010 thunderstorm asthma epidemic, offers his top five recommendations for avoiding thunderstorm asthma.

When does it happen?

Several days of elevated pollen counts and warm conditions, followed by a sudden cool change, causes a rupture of pollen grains into tiny particles. These can be breathed into the lower airways and cause asthma.

Should I be concerned?

2016 appears by far the most severe epidemic of thunderstorm asthma, both in reported cases and fatalities. More analysis by experts from the Bureau of Meteorology, Environmental Protection Agency and others are analysing weather conditions to enhance predictions and warnings.

How do I avoid thunderstorm asthma?

  1. Be aware of thunderstorm warnings
  2. Stay inside during a storm
  3. Be mindful of any asthma symptoms (coughing, chest tightness, wheezing)
  4. Monitor pollen counts
  5. If you have one, take your preventer regularly.

Useful links and contact details

3AW Breakfast with John Burns and Ross Stevenson speak to Dr Michael Sutherland about the thunderstorm asthma incident, news clip courtesy of the Victorian Department of Health, Media Unit

Five point plan for avoiding thunderstorm asthma, The Age, 25 November 2016

Dr Michael Sutherland

Dr Michael Sutherland is a respiratory and sleep physician with interests in allergy, asthma and sleep apnoea. His research interest is in severe allergic asthma.

Ph: 03 9817 3155

Fax: 03 9817 9705

Consulting Address: Suite 5, 228 Cotham Road, Kew, VIC 3101


Epworth Richmond Emergency Department

Epworth Richmond Emergency Department is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

In an emergency, always call ‘000‘ first.

Emergency department reception Ph: 03 9506 3000

Emergency Department consultant Ph: 03 9426 6303

Address: 62 Erin Street, Richmond, VIC 3121


Epworth Geelong Emergency Department

Epworth Geelong Emergency Department is open from 8.00am to midnight, seven days a week

In an emergency, always call ‘000‘ first.

Emergency Department reception Ph: 03 5271 7000         Fax: 03 5271 7199

Emergency Department consultant Ph: 03 5271 7115

Address: Level 1, Epworth Geelong, 1 Epworth Place, Waurn Ponds, VIC 3216

Epworth Geelong Emergency Department service information for GPs