Asthma — a condition in which the airways narrow, making it difficult to breathe — isn't just a condition that flares up in childhood. It can appear at any time during a person's life — whether they're in their 20s or 60s.
According to 2017 data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7.5 percent of adults aged 65 to 74 currently have asthma. (For comparison, 7.5 percent of people aged 18 to 44 also have asthma.)
"It's a common misconception that people only get asthma as a kid and not as an adult," says John Ramey, MD, a board-certified immunologist at National Allergy and ENT in North Charleston, South Carolina. "But it's very common in adults."
Seniors, too, can be more at risk for serious asthma attacks than younger people, in part because they also have more pre-existing health conditions, says Dr. Ramey.
For example, respiratory infections are a common trigger of asthma attacks — and as we age, our immune system becomes less effective at fighting off viruses and bacteria, he explains. "We typically see [asthma symptoms in older adults] after they get some type of infection, like a cold or pneumonia," he says.
Problem is, some of the classic symptoms — like shortness of breath — can be dismissed as a natural sign of aging. Here are four signs that you could have asthma.
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1. You have a cough that won't go away.
Not everyone with asthma will experience shortness of breath or wheezing. Sometimes, the only symptom for people with asthma is a lingering cough, says Dr. Ramey. "If a person is coughing for, say, more than 2 weeks, asthma could be a possibility," he says.
If your doctor suspects that you have asthma, he or she may send you home with an albuterol inhaler, which is used to treat asthma symptoms. "Typically, when most asthmatics use albuterol, [their breathing] gets a lot better within 15 to 20 minutes," he says. "If it doesn't help, they're less likely to have asthma."
2. You get "bronchitis" every year.
The symptoms of asthma can mimic bronchitis, an inflammation of the airways that can trigger a cough, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. "You have patients who say they get bronchitis, but a lot of times that bronchitis ends up being asthma and they've been misdiagnosed," he says.
Some primary care doctors mistake asthma for bronchitis, in part, because many of them don't have a spirometer in their office, says Dr. Ramey. A spirometer is a test that measures how well your lungs are working, and is an important tool that helps doctors determine whether a person has asthma, he explains.
If you have coughing episodes a few times a year, you may want to see a specialist—like an allergist or pulmonologist—to determine whether you have undiagnosed asthma, he says.
3. You're short of breath — and more.
It's not unusual for older people to be less active (and therefore, more out of breath) than they were in their younger years. But the shortness of breath that often accompanies asthma also tends to come alongside a cluster of other symptoms, including coughing and wheezing, says Dr. Ramey. Wheezing is a classic symptom of asthma that's caused by inflammation in your throat or airways, according to the Mayo Clinic. It often sounds like a whistle when you inhale or exhale.
4. You have chest tightness.
Chest tightness can feel as if the muscles are tightening around the airway (which can feel different than chest pain, says Dr. Ramey). Plus, like shortness of breath, chest tightness in asthmatics is typically accompanied by other symptoms of asthma, including wheezing or coughing, he says.
Of course, don't try and diagnose yourself with asthma (or any other condition). If you're concerned about any symptoms you're experiencing, call your doctor, who can help you determine the right diagnosis.
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