What is Adult Onset Asthma?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition that causes difficulty breathing due to lowered lung capacity, increased mucus production, and narrowed airways. It is typically controlled through medication and lifestyle choices, but cannot be fully cured. While many asthma patients are diagnosed as children, a significant amount do not develop symptoms until adulthood. Typically, anyone over 18 who receives an asthma diagnosis is said to have adult onset asthma.

An asthma inhaler.
An asthma inhaler.

It is unclear why adult onset asthma patients do not develop the condition until adulthood. Studies show that at least half of adult onset asthma patients suffered from allergies as children, which are often considered to be related to asthma. Some adult onset asthma patients are women triggered by hormonal shifts, such as those related to pregnancy, menopause, or hormone therapy. Others develop severe allergies that can trigger asthma, such as to smoke, animal hair or fur, pollen, or certain chemicals. Obesity is also considered to significantly increase the risk of adult onset asthma.

An illustration of the pathology of asthma.
An illustration of the pathology of asthma.

Since lung capacity naturally falls after middle age, adult onset asthma can also appear in older adults. As older people are often more susceptible to illnesses that can trigger asthma attacks, it is especially important that diagnosis and treatment is sought if symptoms appear. Because some older adults diagnosed with asthma have limited mobility, special inhalers are sometimes used to allow easier dosage.

Some adult onset asthma patients are women who have experienced hormonal shifts.
Some adult onset asthma patients are women who have experienced hormonal shifts.

Since asthma is a respiratory illness, most symptoms are related to breathing problems. During an asthma attack, patients may be unable to inhale or exhale deeply, develop a rattling wheeze, or feel chest tightness. Severe attacks can prevent sufficient oxygen from reaching the lungs and can result in serious or even fatal complications. For this reason, most health experts recommend that anyone experiencing asthmatic symptoms see a health care provider for diagnosis.

Performing breathing exercises could help treat adult onset asthma.
Performing breathing exercises could help treat adult onset asthma.

Adult onset asthma is often diagnosed through a series of tests, which may include X-rays of the lungs. Since there is some evidence that asthma is genetic, medical and family histories may be required. Doctors will often check the lung capacity of suspected asthmatics, as this can be a telling sign. Some doctors may also perform a test that will medically induce airway constriction to see if asthma is present.

Adult onset asthma is often diagnosed through a series of tests.
Adult onset asthma is often diagnosed through a series of tests.

Treatment for adult onset asthma patients is similar to that for childhood asthmatics, and will depend on the severity of symptoms. Most asthma patients use some form of anti-inflammatory drug that is sprayed into the mouth and inhaled. People with rare and intermittent symptoms may be told to use the drug only when symptoms appear or if the patient develops a cold, but those with severe cases may need to use the medication daily. Additionally, severe adult asthma patients may be given a second drug that encourages bronchial muscle relaxation.

Since lung capacity naturally falls after middle age, adult onset asthma can also appear in older adults.
Since lung capacity naturally falls after middle age, adult onset asthma can also appear in older adults.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

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