SOURCE: This information should not substitute for seeking responsible, professional medical care. First created 1995; fully updated 1998; most recently updated 2005.
© Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA) Editorial Board
What is Asthma?
Asthma is a common disease that affects the lungs. About 15 million Americans have asthma. People who have asthma may experience wheezing, coughing, increased mucous production and difficulty breathing. These symptoms are caused by inflammation and/or obstruction of the airways, which transport air from the nose and mouth to the lungs.
People with asthma may have allergies “triggered” by various allergens. Allergens are substances found in our everyday environment
What is Adult Onset Asthma?
Many people develop asthma in childhood. However, asthma symptoms can appear at any time in life. Individuals who develop asthma as adults are said to have adult onset asthma. It is possible to first develop asthma at age 50, 60 or even later in life.
Adult onset asthma may or may not be caused by allergies. Some individuals who had allergies as children or young adults with no asthma symptoms could develop asthma as older adults. Other times, adults become sensitized to everyday substances found in their homes or food and suddenly begin to experience asthma symptoms. About 50 percent of older adults who have asthma are allergic.
Who Gets Adult Onset Asthma?
We do not know what causes asthma. There is evidence that asthma and allergy are in part determined by heredity.
Several factors may make a person more likely to get adult onset asthma. Women are more likely to develop asthma after age 20. For others, obesity appears to significantly increase the risk of developing asthma as an adult.
At least 30 percent of adult asthma cases are triggered by allergies. People allergic to cats may have an increased risk for developing adult onset asthma. Exposure to cigarette smoke, mold, dust, feather bedding, perfume or other substances commonly found in the person’s environment may trigger the first asthma symptoms. Prolonged exposure to certain workplace materials may set off asthma symptoms in adults.
Hormonal fluctuations and changes in women may play a role in adult onset asthma. Some women first develop asthma symptoms during or after a pregnancy. Women going through menopause can develop asthma symptoms for the first time. An ongoing Harvard Nurses Health Study found that women who take estrogen supplements after menopause for ten years or more are 50 percent more likely to develop asthma than women who never used estrogen.
Different illnesses, viruses or infections can be a factor in adult onset asthma. Many adults first experience asthma symptoms after a bad cold or a bout with the flu.
Adult onset asthma is not caused by smoking. However, if you smoke or are exposed to cigarette smoke (secondhand smoke), it may provoke asthma symptoms.
What are the Signs and Symptoms of Adult Onset Asthma?
Asthma symptoms can include:
Dry cough, especially at night or in response to specific “triggers”
Tightness or pressure in the chest
Wheezing—a whistling sound—when exhaling
Shortness of breath after exercise
Colds that go to the chest or “hang on” for 10 days or more