Understanding Adult-Onset Asthma

Asthma is often thought of as a childhood disease. But asthma can happen at any time in life – even as late as age 50, 60 or older. This is called Adult-Onset Asthma.

More than 20 million American adults suffer from asthma. Because of a lack of knowledge about asthma, many adults may not know they have it. And a delay in treatment could be deadly. In fact, adults are about 15 times more likely to die of asthma-related conditions than children.

That is why it is vital to recognize the symptoms of adult-onset asthma and get treatment. There is no cure for asthma, but with proper management, you can live a full, healthy life.

Understanding Asthma

If you have asthma, the airways in your lungs are often constricted or inflamed. This makes them sensitive to things such as cold weather, smoke, allergens, or air pollution. These are commonly called triggers. (See below for more information about triggers.)

When a person with asthma is exposed to a trigger, their airways swell even more, making breathing difficult or even impossible. This is called a flare-up or asthma attack. These can be serious and sometimes even life-threatening.

That is why it is important to identify asthma and treat it.

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Childhood Asthma vs. Asthma in Adults

The symptoms of asthma are the same for children and adults. The symptoms for children, though, are generally more intermittent and may lessen or go away during puberty. (But they may return later in life.)

Adult-onset asthma is often more severe. The symptoms are more persistent. Adults are more likely to have frequent asthma attacks, and it does not go away with time. Adults may require daily medications to control their asthma.

Adult-Onset Asthma Risk Factors

It is unclear why some adults experience asthma recurrence. About 30 percent of asthma cases in adults are triggered by allergies. Certain workplace materials and chemicals may set off asthma symptoms. Various illnesses, viruses or infections – such as a bad cold or flu – can also lead to adult asthma. Smoking does not appear cause asthma, but being around cigarette smoke can trigger asthma flare-ups.

You are at a greater risk of adult-onset asthma if:

  • You are a woman
  • You are obese
  • You had asthma as a child
  • You previously suffered or currently suffer from allergies

The Signs and Symptoms of Developing Adult-Onset Asthma

Adults with asthma symptoms sometimes think their shortness of breath is due to something else, like being overweight, getting older, or being out of shape. As a result, they may put off treatment. That could be dangerous.

If you are at risk for adult-onset asthma, it is important to know and watch for the symptoms of asthma. They include:

  • Dry cough
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Wheezing — a whistling sound when exhaling
  • Shortness of breath after exercise or physical exertion
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Chest colds that linger for 10 days or more

Asthma Triggers

Whether you are a child or an adult, asthma has the same triggers. Generally, exposure to one of the following triggers may cause the asthma symptoms listed above, or cause a serious asthma attack. Different people have different triggers, but the triggers include:

Managing Your Adult-Onset Asthma

Asthma is a serious health condition. However, you can live a normal and full life with asthma if you follow these guidelines.

  1. Make an asthma action plan with your doctor. The plan will guide you through day-to-day management of your asthma, and what to do if your symptoms get worse.
  2. Take your medicines. Be sure to follow your doctor’s instructions and talk about the other medicines you are taking, including vitamins and herbal supplements. Some medications may make your asthma symptoms worse. Or they can cause a bad interaction with your asthma medicine.
  3. Check your lungs daily using a peak flow meter. It is a painless test and may help you identify lung changes before you start to feel the symptoms.

There are also things you can do in your daily life to reduce your asthma symptoms, particularly if it is triggered by allergies:

Many adult Americans have asthma and live full, healthy lives. Make sure you know the symptoms of asthma, and if you see them, work with your doctor to create a proactive plan.

If you have asthma or think you may have it, an allergist or pulmonary doctor at UPMC Pinnacle can help bring relief to keep you healthy and active. To find one near you, go to UPMCPinnacle.com/FindADoctor.

Featuring Larisa B. Fritz, MD

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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