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Surprising Signs of Adult-Onset Asthma

That persistent cough that keeps you up at night may stem from more than just a tickle in the back of your throat. It could be adult-onset asthma.

Many people experience a jolt of disbelief when they are diagnosed with asthma later in life, especially if they have never experienced symptoms before. Asthma? That condition that causes kids to wheeze?

It turns out adult-onset asthma is far more common than many people realize. “Asthma is often considered a disease of children, so adults may be surprised when they are diagnosed with asthma,” says pulmonologist Javier Pérez-Fernández [1], M.D., the critical care director at Baptist Hospital of Miami [2].

The number of people with asthma grows every year. Currently, more than 26 million Americans have asthma, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention [3].  Of those cases, more than 20 million are among adults, with the greatest number of cases among ages 35 and 65.

Asthma is a chronic inflammation of the lung airways that can lead to coughing, chest tightness, shortness of breath or wheezing. Among adults who develop asthma later in life, the symptoms may initially be more subtle than in children, which can cause patients to overlook or ignore the condition. But it’s important to treat symptoms as soon as possible so they don’t become severe, said Dr. Pérez-Fernández, who also serves as director of pulmonology for West Kendall Baptist Hospital [4].

“Untreated, asthma is a very high-risk disease. It can be very dangerous,” he said. “But when it is treated, people with asthma can do very well. They are not limited in any way, and can have a completely normal life with all kinds of physical activity, including participation in sports.”

Asthma is particularly risky as people age, another important reason to seek diagnosis and treatment. Severe asthma attacks may require emergency room visits and hospitalization, and they can be fatal. Almost 3,600 people die of asthma each year, nearly half of whom are age 65 or older, according to the CDC.

“Adults are four times more likely to die of asthma than children,” Dr. Pérez-Fernández said. “It’s very avoidable. With the advances of the past 20 years, we do have the means to treat and control asthma.”

No one knows exactly what causes asthma [5]. Among children, there appears to be a strong connection to allergies and genetics. Adults may also develop the condition due reflux, obesity, certain medications, respiratory illness or flu, and exposure to chemicals and environmental factors.

Some adults may develop occupational asthma, a condition triggered by irritants in their workplace. Aspirin-sensitive asthma is another type that is seen in adults. Adults who are overweight or obese are at greater risk, possibly because of the low-grade inflammation in the body that occurs with extra weight.

Not everyone who has asthma will experience the classic wheezing, Dr. Pérez-Fernández said. Here are some symptoms you should note:

Because some of these symptoms can be progressive, many patients don’t take notice and fail to mention them to their doctor — which is a mistake.

“Don’t dismiss your symptoms. If you find yourself short of breath, don’t blame your age, or that extra weight you might have put on. Tell your doctor, even if you think it’s nothing,” Dr. Pérez-Fernández advises. “If it’s asthma, your doctor will determine your treatment plan based on the severity of your symptoms, triggers, and your lifestyle.”