Health Library

Health Library

Don't Rule Out Adult-Onset Asthma

Approximately 25 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with asthma as of 2009, according to the CDC. It is often thought of as a childhood condition, but asthma affects more adults than children. In some cases, asthma may not be diagnosed until adulthood.

Asthma is a chronic disease marked by wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness, and coughing. These symptoms are caused by chronic inflammation of the airways, increased mucus, and thickening and narrowing of the bronchial tubes.

Several possible causes

What causes adult asthma? No one knows for sure. Higher levels of air pollution, a lack of exercise, and spending more time indoors may be to blame. Experts say that other factors also can increase your risk:

  • Allergies

  • Viral infections, including upper-respiratory infections, such as colds

  • Family history of asthma

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke or other irritants

Aspirin and over-the-counter (OTC), nonsteroidal, anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen or naproxen, also can trigger asthma attacks in some people. Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors and beta-blockers—both given to treat heart disease and high blood pressure—may make asthma worse.

Sudden symptoms

You may have asthma now and not even know it. Coughing or wheezing when you're vacuuming, gardening, or exposed to dogs or cats could be a sign of the condition. Other symptoms may include shortness of breath and tightness in your chest. Even a dry, hacking cough that lingers after what seems to be a mild cold could mean you have asthma. See your health care provider if you notice changes in how you breathe. He or she can determine if you have asthma or another condition with similar symptoms, such as chronic bronchitis.

Treatment tips

If you do have asthma, you'll probably start treatment for it right away with medication. Your health care provider will probably prescribe a short-acting bronchodilator if you have mild and intermittent symptoms. For moderate or persistent symptoms, your health care provider may also prescribe an anti-inflammatory drug. This may be combined with a long-acting bronchodilator or given as two separate inhalers. An oral anti-inflammatory drug may also be added for moderate or persistent symptoms.

Try these tips to help manage your condition and prevent asthma attacks:

  • Make a list of the OTC and prescription medications you already take. Show it to all your health care providers and update it at every visit.

  • Get your treatment plan in writing from your health care provider. It should list your asthma medications and doses and when to take them.

  • Learn to use a peak flow meter. It may detect a worsening of your asthma before you develop symptoms. It can help you anticipate an asthma attack and adjust your medications accordingly.

  • Develop and review an asthma care plan regularly with your doctor. An asthma care plan contains instructions on self-treatment depending on what your peak flows are showing. 

  • Avoid asthma triggers, such as smoke, mold, and pollen. Respiratory infections also can worsen asthma. Talk with your health care provider about ways to prevent them.

  • Have the following paperwork on hand in case of an asthma attack: an updated list of your medications and dosages, your health insurance ID card, the name and address of the closest hospital, and the names and phone numbers of your health care providers.