What You Need to Know About Adult-Onset Asthma

Asthma doesn't always develop in childhood. Find out about adult asthma symptoms.

Medically reviewed in November 2022

Though asthma is more common in children than in adults, the truth is, asthma can develop at any time -- even after age 50. It's estimated that as many as 5% of U.S. adults may have asthma.

When asthma develops later in life, it's called adult-onset asthma. Asthma can act slightly differently in adults than it does in kids. For example, when asthma occurs in childhood, boys are more apt to have it than girls. In adults, however, it's more common in women.

The bottom line is that adult asthma can have some pretty detrimental impacts on quality of life. In fact, adult asthma is the fourth-leading cause of missed workdays and lost productivity at work.

Adult-Onset Asthma Symptoms
Many of the symptoms of adult asthma are similar to those in children: dry cough, chest tightness or pressure, difficulty breathing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and colds and respiratory infections that seem to last longer than average, for example.

But unlike with children, who often experience asthma episodes sporadically, adults tend to have persistent asthma symptoms that require daily medication to control. And because lung function may decrease after middle age, symptoms of adult-onset asthma are sometimes overlooked and dismissed as a general result of decreased lung capacity.

Asthma symptoms in adults are also sometimes dismissed as some other health condition. In older adults, particularly, asthma symptoms may be confused with symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), hiatal hernia, or stomach problems. That makes it particularly important for people to be aware of the possibility of adult-onset asthma and to have a doctor check any respiratory symptoms to ensure a correct diagnosis.

Treatments for Adult-Onset Asthma
Although there's no cure for adult-onset asthma, the condition is manageable. Take an active role in controlling your asthma, and work with your doctor to maximize your treatment.

The asthma action plan you and your doctor create should cover monitoring your symptoms, taking medication as prescribed, and avoiding your triggers. As with children, up to 50% of adult-onset asthma cases are associated with allergies, so management and treatment of allergies (if you have them) may be a focal part of your treatment program.

Each year more than 4,000 Americans die from asthma attacks, so don't ignore your symptoms. If you had asthma as a child, keep in mind that it may disappear for a while but can return in adulthood.

More On

Ask the Experts: Asthma Symptoms

video

Ask the Experts: Asthma Symptoms
Asthma can cause airways to narrow, making breathing difficult. In this video, Sharecare Medical Advisor Barbara Ficarra, RN, reveals symptoms of the ...
Can I Have a Pet if I Have Asthma?

article

Can I Have a Pet if I Have Asthma?
Learn how adopting a four-legged friend could affect your health.
The Best Foods for Asthma

slideshow

The Best Foods for Asthma
Add these into your diet to help prevent attacks.
How Can I Ensure I Am Getting the Optimal Treatment for My Asthma?

video

How Can I Ensure I Am Getting the Optimal Treatment for My Asthma?
To ensure optimal treatment for your asthma, you must communicate openly with your doctor about your symptoms and how you feel. Watch family medicine ...
Understanding Eosinophils and E-Asthma

video

Understanding Eosinophils and E-Asthma
Some people have a type of severe asthma called eosinophilic asthma, or e-asthma, where levels of eosinophils are very high. Watch this video to learn...