May 26, 2022

If you have allergies or are pregnant, you may have an unwelcome health guest: adult-onset asthma. Learn the facts.

Asthma has a lot of myths surrounding it. We often attribute the characteristic wheezing and shortness of breath to kids and think of asthma as something that will be “grown out of” like a pair of shoes. Unfortunately, many people with asthma will experience a worsening of symptoms as they age, and some people who didn’t have asthma as a child will be diagnosed with it in adulthood. We asked David Hagaman, M.D., at Vanderbilt’s Asthma, Sinus & Allergy Program, to answer some questions about adult asthma triggers and symptoms.

What are typical asthma symptoms in adults?

There are a variety of signs of developing asthma. Adult onset asthma will typically present as shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing or a chest tightness or pain. If you’re asthmatic, you will likely experience a bronchospasm during exercise, Hagaman said. That’s when the muscles in your bronchi walls constrict and cause your airways to narrow, making it difficult to breathe. If you’re experiencing these symptoms, talk to your doctor. You may have adult-onset asthma.

“Sometimes we’ll see folks who just really slow down and stop exercising and stop exerting themselves,” Hagaman said. “They don’t perceive that it’s because their lungs are responding in a negative way. They just know they don’t feel well, so they stop doing it.” Doctors often use an exercise challenge to diagnose asthma, especially in adults.

Which people are more at risk for adult-onset asthma?

The following people have greater chances of developing asthma as adults: 

You had asthma as a kid.

Exercise-induced asthma is the more common type of adult-onset asthma, but allergic asthma is more prevalent in children than adults, Hagaman said. “A lot of times it goes away during puberty and the teenage years, but then comes back later in the late 20s and 30s,” he said. In allergic asthma, exposure to allergens triggers the bronchospasm that leads to breathing difficulty.

You have allergies or sinus issues.

Even if you’ve never had asthma, chronic allergies and sinus issues can trigger lung irritation that can lead to asthma. “We call it ‘one airway, one disease,’” Hagaman says, “meaning from the tip of your nose to the bottom of your lungs, the histology of the mucous is all very similar. We make a big point of controlling nasal inflammation so that there is less triggering of the lower airway.” If you’re plagued with allergies or nasal congestion, talk to your doctor about the best treatment for your symptoms.

You’re pregnant or going through menopause.

Although researchers are still determining the specifics, studies show that female sex hormones could play a role in adult asthma. “Oftentimes it will get worse or it will rear its head during pregnancy,” Hagaman said. “And a lot of times it will continue then.”

You work around dust or fumes.

Your job could also put you at risk for adult-onset asthma. Those who inhale dust or chemical fumes are most susceptible. Pastry chefs, hairstylists, mechanics and farmers are just a few examples. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 17 percent of adult-onset asthma cases can be attributed to work-related exposures. “We see a lot of occupational asthma,” Hagaman said.

If you’re concerned about what you’re breathing in at work, talk to your doctor about how to best protect your lungs.

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