An Asthma Attack Caused by a Thunderstorm (McGill OSS)

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On November 21st, 2016 a thunderstorm swept across Melbourne, Australia. It brought with it the usual flooded basements, wet shoes and ruined picnics, but it also brought a strange outbreak of asthma. Asthmatics and non-asthmatics alike suddenly found themselves unable to catch their breath, coughing and in extreme cases not being able to breathe at all. By the time the storm had passed, there was a 672% increase in respiratory-related presentations to emergency departments and a 992% increase in asthma-related admissions to hospital. The storm contributed to the death of at least 10 people.

So what was it about this thunderstorm that spurred a city-wide asthma attack? Experts aren’t certain, but the best guess is pollen. It seems that polled, mould and other allergens can get picked up into a storm, riding on wind currents, and carried into the clouds. Up in the sky, they make contact with water molecules, which causes these allergens to break apart into microscopic particles that can more readily enter human lungs and cause reactions. 
In the case of Melbourne, the allergen of importance seems to be from ryegrass. A grain of ryegrass pollen can be broken down into 700 starch granules, measuring 0.6 to 2.5 μm, which may then be inhaled into the deepest parts of the lungs, and cause an asthma attack or an allergic reaction.

As roughly 20% of the world is sensitive to grass or tree pollens, you can imagine that these storms are quite bothersome to many. Melbourne wasn’t the first case of casualties due to storm inflicted asthma, and it sadly will probably not be the last. 

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If You Have a Nut Allergy You Might Want to Check Your Shampoo Ingredients

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Nut allergies affect about 2% of the Canadian population and can be broken down into tree nut allergies (like almonds or cashews) and peanut allergies (peanuts aren’t actually nuts but legumes). These allergies are caused by ingesting or inhaling certain allergenic nut proteins, not all of which have been identified yet. So, if these proteins were present in oils made from nuts that are used in cosmetics like hand cream or shampoo, one could have a reaction to them.

If you’re allergic to peanuts, that’s likely all you’re allergic to. Numbers vary on the percentage of people allergic to peanuts that have cross-reactivity to other legumes like soy or tree nuts, but it’s not a majority. On the other hand, if you’re allergic to one kind of tree nut, chances are you’re allergic to several. You are likely, however, not allergic to coconut or nutmeg (though it’s a common misconception) as they are not nuts.

Studies have found that contact allergic reactions can occur due to exposure to allergens in cosmetics. But these reactions only occur if the relevant proteins are intact, so in general, the more processed and refined the cosmetic, the smaller the likelihood of a reaction.

Allergens in cosmetics can pop up more than you might expect. Peanut oil is often used under the name arachis hypogaea in shampoos and creams. Tree nut oils in cosmetics are downright common, with almond oilargan oil and shea butter being some common examples. Coconut oil is also growing in popularity lately, with many companies incorporating it into products in order to market them as ‘natural’. Looking in my bathroom I found six products containing peanut, tree nut or coconut oils.

Since every allergy is different it’s really best to evaluate your own situation. If you’re allergic to tree nuts but not coconut, look for coconut-based products. If you’re allergic to tree nuts and coconut, you might have to look for specialty products or make your own. Or, you might check the products you’ve already been using and realize that they contained your allergen, in which case you’re probably good to keep on using them.

Latex emitting dandelions

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Ever snap off a dandelion head and see the white liquid seeping out from the stem? It turns out that fluid isn’t sap or poison, but a defense mechanism, in the form of latex! The Lithuanian word for dandelions is ‘pienė’, which literally translates to milky, for the white liquid. Latex is produced by cells called laticifers, which exist in more than 20 000 plant species, as well as some fungi. Dandelions are fairly special though, as only 6% of temperate plants produce latex, versus 14% of tropical ones.