9 Things to Know About Adult Asthma

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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When people think about asthma, they often think of a condition that’s diagnosed in childhood. But there’s a specific type of asthma called “adult onset asthma” or “late onset asthma” that, as the name implies, you may develop later in life.

Asthma can be quite a different experience for adults than for children, with it’s own unique set of symptoms and challenges. Understanding the differences, and how to cope, will help you breathe easier.

1. Adult asthma can develop at any time in life. Asthma is common in adults ages 65 and older, but it can start at any point in life. It tends to run in families, but not all family members get it. If you had allergies or asthma as a child, you may be more likely to get asthma, or have it recur, later in life. Obesity is also thought to increase the risk of developing asthma as an adult.

How to Stay Healthy with Asthma

2. Adult asthma is often hard to diagnose. Adult onset asthma is often confused with other conditions that have similar symptoms, such as bronchitis, emphysema, stomach problems, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Often it goes untreated because of this, so it’s important to talk to your doctor about any symptoms you may have.

3. Asthma triggers are different for adults. For children, asthma is most often triggered by allergies or respiratory infections. Adult-onset asthma is more likely triggered by a number of factors:

  • Flu, colds or other viral infections

  • Exercise

  • Cold air

  • Air pollution

  • Chemicals

  • Cigarette smoke

  • Certain medicines

  • Laughing or getting excited

  • Hormonal changes

  • Depression or anxiety

4. Adult asthma can be more persistent than childhood asthma. Unlike children who often have intermittent asthma symptoms, adults tend to experience persistent symptoms, especially if newly diagnosed. If you find your asthma is difficult to manage, or your medication is not working as well as it once did, talk to your doctor to see if daily medications are needed to help keep it under control.

5. Adult asthma can affect lung function. A person’s lung function tends to decline after middle age, but if asthma is not properly treated, the lung’s capacity can deteriorate more quickly and permanently. Adults with persistent asthma are often prescribed more preventive and regular medication in order to help protect the lungs from permanent damage.

6. Other medications can affect treatment. Some medicine, such as heart medication, may interfere with your asthma treatment or affect how your asthma medication works. If you’re taking medicine for other conditions, it’s important to work with your doctor to find the best treatment for your asthma. Don’t take over-the-counter (OTC) medication unless prescribed by your doctor.

7. Side effects from adult asthma medication can be worse. Some asthma and allergy medication can have side effects that are particularly harmful for older adults. For example, oral steroids can make symptoms of glaucoma, cataracts and osteoporosis worse, and some allergy and asthma medicine can increase your heart rate. Be sure you understand all possible side effects of your medications before taking them.

8. You should get vaccinated if you have adult asthma. Both children and adults with asthma should consider getting an annual flu shot, but older adults should also talk with their doctor about getting a pneumonia vaccination since viral infections can trigger asthma symptoms. 

9. You have some control over your asthma. Adults with asthma can often control symptoms by making some lifestyle changes to help cut down on triggers in your environment. For example, you may want to allergy-proof your house for common indoor allergens like dust mites, mold and cockroaches; stay indoors when it’s extremely cold or the pollen count is high; or take a look at your workplace for possible allergens, such as chemicals or air pollution.

Though asthma can begin at any age, it doesn’t have to stop you from living. Work with your doctor or allergist to determine what triggers your symptoms. You may not be likely to outgrow them, but with good management, you can keep them at bay for long periods of time and continue to lead a normal, active life.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2022 Sep 23
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Adult Onset Asthma. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. New England Chapter. http://asthmaandallergies.org/asthma-allergies/adult-onset-asthma/
  2. Diagnosing Asthma in Adults. Asthma UK. https://www.asthma.org.uk/advice/diagnosis/adults/
  3. Living with Asthma. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. http://www.aafa.org/page/managing-life-with-asthma.aspx