Asthma is a chronic lung condition which causes the air ways (bronchi) of the lungs to become inflamed and narrow, making it hard to breathe. Inflammation results in increased mucous production and bronchospasm. Asthma can be a life threatening condition.

Another asthma term that affects the farming community is Thunderstorm Asthma. Thunderstorm Asthma isn’t a specific type or diagnosis of asthma, but it is a trigger for some people and can be very serious. It can happen suddenly to people susceptible to asthma and or hay fever and if grass pollen is a problem for you then  you may also be affected when the air and weather conditions are hot, dry, windy, wet and stormy.

Hazards and risks for farming men, women, children and agricultural workers are high as they are exposed to irritants such as organic and inorganic dusts from pollens, animal dander, grain and hay, which can trigger asthma attacks in susceptible people. Being overweight has also been identified as a risk of developing asthma as fat tissue produces inflammatory substances that might affect the lungs.

Exposure to organic and inorganic dusts is likely to occur when working with or around:

  • Stock, grain, soil, hay and silage which is being moved or transported
  • Grain which is being harvested and stored
  • Smoke released from burn offs or bushfires
  • Pollens released from pastures, crops and trees.

The most common signs of asthma are:

  • Coughing – especially at night, during exercise or when laughing
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing (a whistling or squeaky sound in your chest when breathing, especially when exhaling)

There are many allergens in the agricultural workplace that may irritate and cause asthma to develop in a previously healthy person or trigger asthma symptoms in someone that already has asthma.

Recommendations and strategies to reduce your risk of developing asthma and/or having an asthma attack include:

  • Limiting exposure to dust, smoke and pollens by wearing a fitted face mask
  • Stop smoking
  • Avoid allergens that may trigger asthma attacks
  • Encourage a diet high in fruit, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein
  • Work with your employer/employees to reduce exposures to irritants/triggers on the farm
  • Talk to your GP about an asthma management plan

Asthma attacks can develop over a few minutes or a few days. In an emergency situation, farming men, women, children and agricultural workers need to act quickly as they may have longer travel distances to seek medical treatment – placing them at greater health risk. For this reason it is important to have an asthma management plan in place for those individuals on the farm or workplace who are known to suffer from asthma. This plan should at least contain:

  • Individuals identified triggers
  • Strategies to minimise asthma risks
  • Individuals emergency response plan

In all cases, asthma becomes a medical emergency if the person finds it increasingly difficult to breathe, has severe chest tightness, feels distressed and they are sucking in their throat and their ribs are retracting (pulling in).

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance in an emergency.

To learn more about asthma emergency first aid visit Better Health Channel

To find out more thunderstorm asthma visit Better Health Channel

Fast facts

  • Asthma is a respiratory disease that affects the small air ways of the lung. Asthma can be controlled with appropriate medication.
  • Attacks can be triggered by dust, grains, smoke and pollens.
  • Attacks can be prevented if strategies to reduce exposures to irritants and triggers are in place.
  • People with asthma who live or work on a farm should have a personal asthma management plan.
  • Call triple zero (000) immediately if the person is finding it hard to breath/cannot talk. Give 4 puffs of reliever (asthma medication) every 4 minutes until medical assistance arrives.

References used for this topic

More information:

National Asthma Council
What is asthma?

National Asthma Council
What is Thunderstorm Asthma?

Clinical care:

National Asthma Council
Managing acute asthma in clinical settings
Managing asthma in children
Asthma first aid

Research & reviews:

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare
Asthma in Australian children

Global Initiative for Asthma
National Asthma Strategy