More than 25 million Americans, or about 8% of the population, have asthma. Over 21 million of these 25 million people are adults.
*According to the CDC.
Condition content was medically reviewed by an AllerVie Health physician in Oct. 2022.
What is Adult-Onset Asthma?
Adult-onset asthma is typically defined as asthma diagnosis after the age of 20. Adult asthma is different from asthma in children because, unlike in children, asthma does not typically go away.
While adults with asthma all have underlying lung inflammation, triggers for symptoms are patient-specific. For some, there are irritants in the workplace: The American Lung Association reports work-related exposures cause 1 in 6 cases of asthma in adults.
Allergies can also bring on an asthma attack. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America found that allergies were the cause of at least 30% of asthma in adults. For some, upper respiratory viral or bacterial infections will result in asthma symptoms.
For most patients with adult-onset asthma, this will be a lifelong condition, but if you take care of it well, you can live a full and active life. If you are having asthma-like symptoms, schedule an appointment today with one of our allergy and asthma specialists to find out what steps you can take.
Adult-Onset Asthma Symptoms
- Wheezing – especially when exhaling
- Tightness or pressure in chest
- Shortness of breath after vigorous activity
- Colds lasting more than 10 days
- Difficulty breathing
- Difficulty sleeping
Asthma Symptom Triggers in Adults
- Pollen from grass, trees, and weeds, and other allergens that are found outside
- Indoor allergens, like pet dander, dust mites, and mold
- Some medicines or food additives
- Irritants in the air, like smoke, pollution, and chemical fumes, or strong smells, like perfume
- Colds, flu, and other ailments
- Exercise (although those with asthma benefit from exercise; if asthma prevents you from exercising then you should talk to your doctor)
- Laughing, crying
- Conditions of the weather, such as cold air, heat and humidity, or weather patterns that change quickly
- For some, symptoms are worsened at night without any obvious triggers
Adult Asthma Attack Symptoms
During an asthma attack, also called an asthma exacerbation, the airways swell and inflame. The muscles around the airways tighten, spasm, and make more mucus, which makes your breathing tubes narrow.
During an episode, you might cough, wheeze, sense chest tightness, and find it hard to breathe. Most asthma attacks get better quickly when you take care of them at home. If an asthma attack doesn’t get better with home care, it could turn into a life-threatening emergency.
To stop an asthma attack, it’s important to be aware of your symptoms and treat an asthma flare-up right away. Follow the treatment plan (often called an “Asthma Action Plan”) you and your doctor made ahead of time. Your treatment plan should tell you what to do if you are having an asthma attack and what to do if it worsens.
Risk Factors for Adult-onset Asthma
Although the exact cause of adult-onset asthma cannot always be identified, there are risk factors that can contribute to adult-onset asthma.
Laughing or crying
Some medicines or food additives
Colds, flu, and other ailments
Indoor allergens, like pet dander, dust mites, and mold
Pollen from grass, trees, and weeds, and other outdoor allergens
Irritants in the air, like smoke, pollution, and chemical fumes, or strong smells, like perfume
Exercise may be difficult, although beneficial
Weather conditions, such as cold air, heat and humidity, or weather patterns that change quickly
Symptoms may worsen at night without any obvious triggers
When left untreated, asthma can limit your enjoyment of physical activities. It can also cause long-term lung damage and even death. Following a treatment plan developed by an asthma specialist is important to maintaining your health. Regular follow-ups with your provider help ensure your treatment plan continues to address your symptoms. Many asthma medications have adverse side effects when not taken as prescribed or overused.
When to See a Doctor
If you are experiencing symptoms of asthma, it is a good idea to consult with an asthma specialist. Our asthma specialists are familiar with asthma-related conditions, such as allergies and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Their diagnosis and therapy plan will consider your current health status, age, any medications you are taking and the quality of life you are trying to achieve.
When to Seek Emergency Care
If you have asthma, you should always be aware if any symptoms get worse. If you are struggling to breathe, even after using an inhaler, or are experiencing shortness of breath even at rest, you should seek emergency care at an urgent care center or emergency room. In 2020, close to 4,000 adults living in the United States died from asthma.
How to Diagnose Asthma in Adults?
When you meet with one of our asthma specialists, they will ask about your symptoms, your medical history and your family members’ medical histories. They will also perform a physical exam, test your lung function, and may test for allergies. Other tests that are sometimes helpful include chest-x-ray and bronchoprovocation testing, which is typically completed at a pulmonary function laboratory.
Asthma severity can be classified as either intermittent or persistent. Persistent asthma sub-categories include mild, moderate, or severe. Depending on your symptoms, your asthma classification can change from intermittent to persistent and vice versa. Asthma severity classification helps direct treatment options for your asthma.
In addition, there are different types of asthma, which also help guide asthma therapy. Different types of asthma include allergic (triggered by allergies), nonallergic (often triggered by viral upper respiratory tract infections or no apparent cause), occupational, aspirin-exacerbated respiratory disease, exercise-induced, cough variant, and asthma-COPD overlap. Knowing the type of asthma you have is helpful for treatment as well as providing early clues for possible triggers.
ADULT ASTHMA TREATMENT
Treatment plans help you manage your asthma. Medications for quick-relief and long-term control may be prescribed that specifically address the underlying airway inflammation and/or the irritants that trigger your asthma. Quick-relief inhaler medications that expand the passageways into the lungs are bronchodilators, also known as beta-agonists. Albuterol is the most well-known beta-agonist.
Long-term control medications are taken on a regular basis to prevent symptoms and can include:
- Inhaled corticosteroids
- Antileukotrienes or leukotriene modifiers
- Long-acting inhaled beta-agonists
Adult Asthma Management & Prevention
You can help prevent asthma attacks and flare-ups by first adhering to your treatment plan and letting your asthma specialist know if anything has changed.
You should also schedule follow-up appointments at least annually to review your health and treatment plan. Your allergist may advise you to be seen more often, depending on the severity of your asthma and your symptoms.
Always have your inhaler and Asthma Action Plan with you.
Make sure you know how to use your inhaler and take any other medicine as prescribed.
Improve your health in general:
- Those who smoke should stop.
- If you are overweight, get help to lose weight.
- Incorporate exercise into your daily routine.
Frequently Asked Questions
How is asthma different from COPD?
Asthma is usually thought of as a separate lung disease, but it is sometimes confused with COPD, as they both have similar signs and symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, and trouble breathing.
Patients with COPD can also show signs of right-sided heart failure, which can include increased fatigue and swelling in the legs, feet and ankles. Additionally, those with COPD usually feel symptoms between exacerbations, and the condition worsens with time, but asthmatic patients often feel normal between flares, and when properly treated, can have excellent control of their symptoms.
Age of onset is also quite different for COPD vs asthma. COPD is usually diagnosed at age 45 or later, while asthma is most often diagnosed prior to that. Although smokers can develop asthma, too, almost everyone in the United States with COPD has a history of smoking.
Will my adult-onset asthma go away?
If asthma is diagnosed after childhood, it is highly unlikely to resolve. Compared to childhood asthma, adult-onset asthma can be more difficult to control and has a poorer response to medications. However, in consultation with an asthma specialist, you can gain control of your symptoms and continue your normal daily activities.
If I have asthma, will my children also be asthmatic?
If you have asthma, it’s not a sure thing that your child will have it, too. While we know that having a parent with asthma is a risk factor for developing asthma, scientific studies vary with regards to the exact likelihood.
Also, it seems that the environment is very important. In studies of identical twins, who both have the same genetic make-up and were raised in different environments, there were cases in which one twin developed asthma while the other did not. So both your genes and what you are exposed to in your environment play key roles.