You likely think of asthma as a childhood condition, and while it's true that most people develop it as kids, asthma can actually start at any age.
Doctors don't know exactly what causes the condition (genes and environmental triggers are believed to contribute), or why some adults develop it late in life, but asthma rates are on the rise: From 2001 to 2011, the number of cases grew by almost 30%, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; currently, about one in 12 Americans are diagnosed with the condition.
Here's what you need to know about adult-onset asthma:
It may be overlooked.
Many adults experience a decrease in lung capacity after middle age, which could cause some doctors to miss an asthma diagnosis, the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) warns.
Plus, symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing are not only signs of asthma, but may also describe bronchitis, pneumonia and even chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
If you suspect asthma, visit your doctor to take a history of your symptoms and conduct a physical exam and lung function tests.
Obesity is a risk factor.
Studies have shown that being overweight increases your chances of developing asthma as an adult. Although the connection is still under investigation — one study suggests genes linked to chronic inflammation may play a role — experts believe obesity is also linked to worsening symptoms and poorer asthma control.
Several other factors may contribute to adult-onset asthma, including prolonged exposure to workplace substances (such as chemical fumes or gases), hormonal fluctuations in women going through menopause, and certain respiratory viral or bacterial infections.
You're more likely to need daily meds.
That's because newly diagnosed adults tend to have more persistent symptoms than children, the AAFA says, and therefore need long-term control medications. Inhaled corticosteroids are the most effective at reducing airway inflammation, which helps prevent symptoms. One recent study found, however, that only 8% to 13% of asthma patients continue to refill these prescriptions after one year.
When taken early and as prescribed, inhaled corticosteroids may help improve asthma control and normalize lung function. Rescue inhalers are also prescribed for symptom relief during an asthma attack. Talk to your doctor to determine your best treatment plan.
Cats could trigger symptoms.
At least 30% of adult asthma cases are triggered by allergies. People allergic to cats may have an increased risk of developing asthma later in life; cats carry significant allergens, while dogs usually cause fewer problems, according to the University of Maryland Medical Center.