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I’m an Adult, Can I Still Have Asthma?

March 24, 2016

Asthma affects more than 25 million people every year. Though it is typically thought of as a childhood condition, seven percent of people 65 and older develop asthma later in life.

Asthma can be very concerning in the elderly because it can cause significant health issues. It also can be very difficult to diagnose in seniors because they often suffer from multiple medical conditions. One study found that older people with asthma were more likely to make unscheduled visits to their doctor and more likely to be hospitalized because of this condition.

If you are 65 or older and have experienced shortness of breath, wheezing or other related symptoms, these things could be signs of asthma. Here’s what you should look out for, when to see a doctor and the best treatment options.

Asthma Symptoms in Adults & the Elderly

Similar to young asthma sufferers, asthma symptoms often materialize as shortness of breath, loss of energy, wheezing, chest tightness, persistent cough and production of fluid in the lungs. If you have relatives with asthma, you could be more likely to have asthma, as well. Physical exams that reveal hyperextension of the chest or skin problems related to allergies also can be signs of asthma.

One main challenge with asthma symptoms in older adults is that doctors sometimes misdiagnose these symptoms as being related to other chronic conditions, such as bronchitis, congestive heart failure, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a common lung condition. Shortness of breath also is common with age, which also makes it more difficult to connect this symptom to asthma in the elderly. Additionally, adult-onset asthma is more likely to become life-long than asthma that comes on in childhood, making this condition especially important to address with your physician as soon as possible.

People 65 and older with asthma typically fall into one of three groups: they had asthma as a child and it has reoccurred; triggers such as GERD, a sinus infection or allergies cause them to develop asthma; or they develop the condition for the first time as an adult. Surprisingly, you can experience a first onset of asthma even in your 70’s or 80s. However, asthma is less likely to resolve itself in an older adult. 

Treatment Options

Adults with asthma may need more medication to maintain normal breathing compared to younger people.

Many people over age 65 take different kinds of medication for various chronic conditions, increasing the likelihood of drug reactions and side effects. Some medications also may make asthma symptoms worse.

So, in light of all this, what are the best treatment options if you have adult onset asthma?

First, see a doctor if you experience any of the aforementioned symptoms. If you are diagnosed with asthma, your doctor can create an Asthma Action Plan that details what you can do to prevent and treat asthma symptoms.

You also should regularly visit your doctor after an asthma diagnosis, especially if you are taking multiple medications. If you smoke or have sensitivity to certain airborne allergens such as dust mites and pollen, try your best to limit exposure to these substances.

Inhalers also help to control allergy symptoms. However, this treatment option requires coordination and mobility, which is sometimes a challenge for older adults with limited dexterity or conditions such as arthritis. If this is the case, your doctor may prescribe oral medications instead.

And though we’re headed toward the end of cold and flu season, make sure to get the flu and pneumonia vaccines during this time of year so you can minimize your risk of a respiratory infection.

Asthma can affect people of all ages. If you have shortness of breath, a chronic cough, chest tightness or other symptoms that make it difficult to sleep at night or perform everyday activities, see your doctor as soon as possible. If tests confirm an asthma diagnosis, your doctor can develop a treatment plan that takes into account your medical history and current health. Asthma can be a challenging condition to manage, but with help from your doctor you can keep symptoms under control and remain healthy even as you age.


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