8 November 2022

Schools urged to monitor asthmatic children due to extreme grass pollen levels

| Claire Fenwicke
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Child using asthma puffer

Children’s asthma symptoms could present differently to adults. Photo: File.

Schools and carers of children with asthma have been urged to ensure they’re prepared for an emergency with a significant increase in grass pollen expected over the next few days.

Asthma Australia issued the warning for Canberra from today (9 November) into the weekend, with warmer and drier conditions resulting in more pollen floating in the air.

CEO Dr Michele Goldman said pollen was a common trigger for people with asthma.

“One in nine people have asthma, and as many as 80 per cent of asthma sufferers also have allergies,” she said.

“Asthma is the number one health condition affecting our school kids and a leading cause of hospitalisation.”

Carers, teachers and school staff have been urged to be extra vigilant as asthma didn’t always present as a wheeze in children.

“Younger children sometimes can’t explain they have a tight chest, so they may say they have a sore tummy instead,” Dr Goldman said.

“Symptoms can deteriorate really quickly so it’s vital you have a reliever on hand.”

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It was mandatory for schools to have first aid kits, but if children were at a sports carnival or on an excursion, help could be further away than usual. Spacers are just as important as puffers as they deliver the medication deeper into the lungs.

If someone started having an asthma attack, every second was crucial.

“You can only live without air for minutes, so don’t waste any precious time,” Dr Goldman said.

“If there’s no reliever on hand, do whatever’s possible to find one nearby, ask people if they have one, go to a pharmacy.

“Otherwise, don’t delay calling an ambulance, especially if their breathing is deteriorating quickly.”

Due to our record-breaking wet weather, Canberra’s grass pollen season has been delayed by about two to three weeks.

But recent warmer days meant it was coming back with a vengeance.

Canberra Pollen creator and ANU Professor Simon Haberle said the increase in temperatures and sunshine led to a “burst” in grasses flowering.

“The last month or so, all the rain has washed out the pollen floating around in the air,” he said.

While there are many different types of grass, Professor Haberle said the main culprit for allergies was ryegrass.

It’s mainly planted in pastures in and around Canberra for grazing, and the pollen’s usually blown in by certain winds.

“This week, moving forward, our modelling’s suggesting most days we’ll have high or even extreme pollen counts,” Professor Haberle said.

“Particularly when Canberra has northerly winds – and this week we’re experiencing north-easterly and north-westerly – that’s shown to be a time when really high amounts of grass pollen are blown into the city from pastures.”

Professor Haberle said you couldn’t blame mowing lawns – or lack thereof – for increased allergic reactions.

“That’s a bit of a myth,” he said.

“Mowing lawns can have other impacts, such as throwing up dust, but it’s not responsible for these levels.”

Grass pollen tracking shows just how quickly the season has kicked off in the past week. Photo: Twitter, @CanberraPollen.

The grass pollen season usually lasts from October until late December or even early January, but its peak is throughout November, coinciding with when Canberra experiences a lot of thunderstorms.

Professor Haberle said this could create more hazardous conditions for asthmatics and allergy sufferers due to a phenomenon known as ‘thunderstorm asthma’.

“It’s a complex interaction … but with particular types of thunderstorms, especially if they have strong winds at their front, lots of particles from ground level are blown up into the atmosphere,” he explained.

“A lot of grass pollen then essentially ‘explodes’ when it hits this moisture, heightening its allergenic properties, as its particles are now smaller and can be inhaled further into the lungs.

“This doesn’t happen with every thunderstorm, but it’s good to keep an eye on each time a storm does come through at the same time there’s a high pollen count.”

You can track Canberra’s pollen count through air quality monitor Air Rater and the Canberra Pollen app.

Contact Asthma Australia on 1800 ASTHMA (1800 278 462) for advice and information about asthma. In an emergency, contact Triple Zero (000).

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