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Facts About Adult Onset Asthma

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Asthma is a common disease that affects the lungs. About 15 million Americans have asthma. People who have asthma may experience wheezing, coughing, increased mucous production and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are caused by inflammation and/or obstruction of the airways, which transport air from the nose and mouth to the lungs.

People with asthma may have allergies "triggered" by various allergens. Allergens are substances found in our everyday environment. Most people are not sensitive to them, but people with allergies are. When they come in contact with one of these allergen triggers, asthma symptoms appear. With good management, asthma symptoms can be controlled. Most people who have asthma are able to lead normal lives.

What is Adult Onset Asthma?

Many people develop asthma in childhood. However, asthma symptoms can appear at any time in life. Individuals who develop asthma as adults are said to have adult onset asthma. It is possible to first develop asthma at age 50, 60 or even later in life. Adult onset asthma may or may not be caused by allergies. Some individuals who had allergies as children or young adults with no asthma symptoms could develop asthma as older adults. Other times, adults become sensitized to everyday substances found in their homes or food and suddenly begin to experience asthma symptoms. About 50 percent of older adults who have asthma are allergic.

Who Gets Adult Onset Asthma?

We do not know what causes asthma. There is evidence that asthma and allergy are in part determined by heredity. Several factors may make a person more likely to get adult onset asthma. Women are more likely to develop asthma after age 20. For others, obesity appears to significantly increase the risk of developing asthma as an adult. At least 30 percent of adult asthma cases are triggered by allergies. People allergic to cats may have an increased risk for developing adult onset asthma. Exposure to cigarette smoke, mold, dust, feather bedding, perfume or other substances commonly found in the person's environment may trigger the first asthma symptoms. Prolonged exposure to certain workplace materials may set off asthma symptoms in adults.

Hormonal fluctuations and changes in women may play a role in adult onset asthma. Some women first develop asthma symptoms during or after a pregnancy. Women going through menopause can develop asthma symptoms for the first time.

An ongoing Harvard Nurses Health Study found that women who take estrogen supplements after menopause for ten years or more are 50 percent more likely to develop asthma than women who never used estrogen.

Different illnesses, viruses or infections can be a factor in adult onset asthma. Many adults first experience asthma symptoms after a bad cold or a bout with the flu.

What are the Signs and Symptoms of Adult Onset Asthma?

Asthma symptoms can include:

  • Dry cough, especially at night or in response to specific "triggers"
  • Tightness or pressure in the chest
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing—a whistling sound—when exhaling
  • Shortness of breath after exercise
  • Colds that go to the chest or "hang on" for 10 days or more

How is Adult Onset Asthma Diagnosed?

Asthma symptoms can mimic other illnesses or diseases—especially in older adults. Hiatal hernia, stomach problems or rheumatoid arthritis can create asthma-like symptoms. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) has many of the same symptoms as asthma. COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, is very common in older adults, especially those who are or have been smokers.

To diagnose asthma, your physician will question you about your symptoms, do a physical exam, and conduct lung function tests. In addition, you may be tested for allergies. Your primary care physician may refer you to a pulmonologist (lung specialist) or an allergist for specialized testing or treatment. If you have any asthma symptoms, don't ignore them or try to treat them yourself! Get a definitive diagnosis from your health care provider.

*This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. Information gathered from the Asthma & Allergy Foundation of America.