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Adult-Onset Asthma: Comprehensive Guide to Triggers and Prevention Tips

Asthma is a chronic respiratory illness that usually affects children, but adult patients can also develop it. Adult-onset asthma can be related to different triggers, but adequate treatment can keep it under control.

Read on to learn more about what causes adult-onset asthma and how to reduce the risk of an attack.

Although asthma commonly affects children, it’s also possible for some people to start showing symptoms of asthma during adulthood. In these cases, the condition is known as adult-onset asthma.

Adult-onset asthma can be related to different factors and triggers. In some cases, patients who develop this type of asthma have successfully managed to avoid their asthma triggers up until they reach adulthood.

For example, moving in with a partner who has pets can trigger adult-onset asthma for patients who have never had pets before. Other people may develop symptoms as a result of working with certain chemical products for the first time or moving to an area where different seasonal allergens are present in the environment.

The majority of all cases of asthma begin in childhood. In children, asthma is a highly prevalent disease, but it has a low rate of complications and mortality. Childhood-onset asthma is more prevalent among male children.

The severity of childhood-onset asthma is highly variable and usually related to factors such as:

  • Use of medications
  • Low socioeconomic status
  • Maternal tobacco smoking during pregnancy
  • Excessive maternal sugar intake during pregnancy
  • Chronic lung disease in premature babies
  • Genetic susceptibility and family history of asthma
  • Atopy, which refers to a tendency to develop allergic reactions due to an exaggerated response by IgE antibodies

Adult-onset asthma, on the other hand, is more common in female patients. The symptoms of adult-onset asthma tend to be less stable, and patients may experience more frequent relapses and fewer periods of remission. 

Symptoms of asthma in adults are usually more severe than in children, and patients require asthma medications more often. The condition is also associated with a higher risk of complications and mortality.

Estimates show that nearly half of all middle-aged patients who suffer from asthma developed the condition as adults. As age increases, so does the proportion of patients with adult-onset asthma.

During an asthma attack, your airways become swollen and inflamed. This causes your airways to become narrower than usual, which leads to respiratory symptoms. Inflammation also triggers spasms in the smooth muscle that lines your airways, which causes excessive mucus production.

Some of the most common symptoms of adult-onset asthma include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness
  • Chest pressure
  • Wheezing when you breathe out
  • Shortness of breath after physical activity
  • Dry coughing

The symptoms of childhood-onset asthma tend to be intermittent. Adult-onset asthma, on the other hand, usually causes persistent symptoms that linger over time.

The factors that trigger the onset of asthma in adults aren’t always clear. Respiratory infectious diseases, inhaling airway irritants and allergens — such as smoke, chemicals, or mold, and allergies can all play a role in the development of this condition.

Certain factors can increase the risk of developing asthma during adulthood, including:

  • Having suffered from childhood asthma
  • Female gender: hormonal fluctuations, particularly during pregnancy, perimenopause, and menopause, can trigger asthma symptoms for some patients.
  • Obesity: a sedentary lifestyle and carrying extra weight can lead to changes in your lung physiology.
  • Exposure to allergens: common allergens include smoke, chemical products, dust, and pet dander.

Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for adult patients to ignore their symptoms or mistake them for manifestations of a different condition. Illnesses that can be mistaken with adult-onset asthma include:

  • Stomach disorders
  • Hiatal hernia
  • Heart failure
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Rheumatoid arthritis

It’s also possible for patients to attribute symptoms of asthma to getting older or being in bad physical shape. Symptoms may also be mistaken for a specific allergy.

Although asthma can usually be managed through different therapeutic options, it’s important to highlight the fact that adult-onset asthma has a significantly higher mortality rate than childhood asthma. An early diagnosis and the strict following of your treatment plan can help you preserve your lung capacity and quality of life.

Depending on the severity of your symptoms, your doctor could prescribe different medications to manage your asthma. Lifestyle modifications can also play an important role in asthma management.

Asthma treatments can include rescue medications for acute symptoms or prevention medications for long-term control. Medications that are commonly prescribed to treat asthma include:

  • Long-acting inhaled beta-agonists
  • Short-acting inhaled beta-agonists
  • Oral or IV corticosteroids
  • Leukotriene modifiers
  • Theophylline

Certain factors can make it more difficult to keep adult-onset asthma under control, including:

  • Asthma medications can be less effective as we get older — especially for obese patients.
  • Oral steroids can worsen other conditions, such as osteoporosis and cataracts.
  • Taking beta-blockers can worsen asthma symptoms.
  • As we age, our lungs and respiratory muscles become weaker.

Preventing asthma attacks is an important part of the reduction of risk of this condition. These strategies may help to prevent asthma attacks as an adult:

  • Take your prescription medications as prescribed by your doctor. 
  • Consult your doctor about the safety of your medications if you’re breastfeeding or pregnant.
  • Ask your doctor before taking over-the-counter medications, as some drugs (including NSAIDs such as aspirin or ibuprofen) may trigger symptoms.
  • Monitor your lung capacity. This can be done at home using a peak flow meter, or you can ask your doctor to do so during check-ups.
  • Create an asthma treatment plan with your doctor, and walk through each step of the plan with them.
  • Make sure you’re using your inhalers correctly. If you’re not sure whether you’re using them properly, ask your doctor for guidance.
  • Seek medical attention immediately if you develop asthma symptoms.

Adult-onset asthma usually causes persistent symptoms that are more severe than those of childhood asthma. Different factors can play a role in the development of this condition. 

Fortunately, there are many medications available for asthma patients. The complexity of your treatment plan may vary depending on how often you experience symptoms and how severe they are. Preventing asthma attacks and managing your symptoms can preserve your lung capacity and quality of life.


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