Having Asthma as an Older Adult

An asthma diagnosis can happen at any age. Here's what adults over 50 need to know.

Asthma affects people of all ages, and an asthma diagnosis can happen at any age.

Updated on May 16, 2022

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 25 million people in the United States have asthma. While many people with asthma are diagnosed as children, an asthma diagnosis can happen at any age—including adults over the age of 50.

There are two reasons older adults get diagnosed with asthma for the first time, says Stephen Wasserman, MD. Wasserman is a professor of medicine in the division of Rheumatology, Allergy & Immunology at UCSD.

First, many adults have had symptoms their whole life and are only diagnosed in older age. For example, they may have lived with a chronic cough and thought it was normal until a diagnosis.

Second, asthma symptoms are sometimes triggered after a specific health problem, such as viral pneumonia. Dr. Wasserman also noted that childhood asthma sometimes comes back as you get older. No one knows why, but some people seem to go through a "honeymoon period" when they don't have symptoms, only to have asthma reappear later in life.

Asthma can change as you get older

While symptoms in children and teens usually come and go, adults tend to have more persistent symptoms. Also, people with adult-onset asthma usually don't "outgrow" it, the way some children do.

But the real problem with asthma as you get older isn't really about asthma itself. "The biggest issue with aging asthmatics is the risk of developing other conditions," Wasserman explains. "Having multiple illnesses at once can exacerbate asthma symptoms."

If you're managing more than one health problem, you may need to check in with your healthcare providers more often to make sure that another medicine you are taking isn't making asthma worse. Most medications can work together without a problem—for example, most people are able to use inhaled medications for asthma even if they have other health concerns. But these medications should be used with caution if you're also taking medicine for a GI condition or heart disease.

If you are working with multiple healthcare providers to treat multiple conditions, it's important that your providers are sharing information—including all medications that you are taking. This includes prescribed medications, over-the-counter medications, and any supplements.

Warning signs that asthma is getting worse

Even if you've been managing asthma your whole life, there's a chance that the condition can become worse or more severe over time. There's also the possibility that your treatment plan for asthma may not be working as well as it used to, and may require a change. Some signs to watch for include:

  • Your symptoms are flaring frequently (more than twice a week or even daily)
  • You're having trouble sleeping
  • You're cutting back on more and more activities
  • Symptoms are more severe than usual

If you notice any of the above, talk to your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

Another word of advice from Wasserman—take your medications as directed. This means taking each dose on time and continuing to take controller medications, even when you are feeling good.

"Asthma meds only treat symptoms—they do not cure the disease," he says. "So if someone isn't seeing symptoms, that means the controller meds are working really well, and you don't want to halt effective treatment."

Article sources open article sources

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Asthma Overview.
UpToDate. Treatment of severe asthma in adolescents and adults.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Asthma.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is Asthma?
American Lung Association. Managing Asthma.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Allergens and Allergic Asthma.
James T. Li, John Oppenheimer, et al. Attaining optimal asthma control: A practice
parameter. Journal of Allergy and Clinical Immunology, 2005. Vol. 116, No. 5.
John T. Lindsay and Liam G. Heaney. Nonadherence in difficult asthma – facts, myths, and a time to act. Patient Preference and Adherence, 2013. Vol. 7.
American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. Severe Asthma.
Cleveland Clinic. Biologic Therapy for Severe Asthma. 
Asthma + Lung UK. Difficult to control asthma.
University of Virigina School of Medicine. Asthma Attacks.
Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Asthma Action Plan.
Jenna R. Murdoch and Clare M. Lloyd. Chronic inflammation and asthma. Mutation Research, 2010. Vol. 690, No. 1-2.
Mike Thomas. Allergic rhinitis: evidence for impact on asthma. BMC Pulmonary Medicine, 2006. Vol. 6, Suppl. 1.

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