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Asthma Health Center

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Adult-Onset Asthma

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When asthma symptoms appear and are diagnosed in adults older than age , it is typically known as adult-onset asthma. About half of adults who have asthma also have allergies. Adult-onset asthma also may be the result of commonplace irritants in the workplace (called occupational asthma) or home environments, and the asthma symptoms come on suddenly.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a disorder of the lungs that causes intermittent symptoms. In the airways there is:

  • Swelling or inflammation, specifically in the airway linings
  • Production of large amounts of mucus that is thicker than normal
  • Narrowing because of muscle contractions surrounding the airways

The symptoms of asthma include:

  • Feeling short of breath
  • Frequent coughing, especially at night
  • Wheezing (a whistling noise during breathing)
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Chest tightness

What is Adult-Onset Asthma?

When a doctor makes a diagnosis of asthma in people older than age 20, it is known as adult-onset asthma.

Among those who may be more likely to get adult-onset asthma are:

  • Women who are having hormonal changes, such as those who are pregnant or who are experiencing menopause
  • Women who take estrogen following menopause for 10 years or longer
  • People who have just had certain viruses or illnesses, such as a cold or flu
  • People with allergies, especially to cats
  • People who are exposed to environmental irritants, such as tobacco smoke, mold, dust, feather beds, or perfume. Irritants that bring on asthma symptoms are called "asthma triggers." Asthma brought on by workplace triggers is called "occupational asthma."

What is the Difference Between Childhood Asthma and Adult-Onset Asthma?

Adults tend to have lower lung capacity (the volume of air you are able to take in and forcibly exhale in one second) after middle age because of changes in muscles and stiffening of chest walls. This decreased capacity may cause doctors to miss the diagnosis of adult-onset asthma.

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