Asthma is thought to affect around 5.4 million people in the UK. One in 11 children and one in 12 adults have asthma, and though medical treatments and management techniques are improving all the time, it’s still a serious condition that – for most people – requires daily care.
As we have seen, asthma affects both children and adults. The fact that it is slightly more common in children indicates that some children who suffer from it will “grow out” of their symptoms in their teens or early adulthood. However other people will have it throughout their entire life.
In certain cases, asthma does not emerge as a condition until adulthood. This is known as adult onset asthma and is fairly common.
Asthma Symptoms in Adults
The symptoms of asthma in adults are normally exactly the same as the symptoms in children. The four key indicators are coughing, wheezing, feeling breathless and having tightness in the chest.
As an adult, diagnosis of asthma can be easier than as a child. This is because children – particularly infants and toddlers – often have the symptom of wheezing without actually suffering from asthma. Another issue is that small children cannot carry out a peak flow test (where the ability to blow air out of your lungs is measured).
However, being diagnosed as an adult can also be problematic – particularly if the patient is in middle age or older. This is because other conditions common amongst older people have similar symptoms to asthma. These include pneumonia, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
If you are an adult suffering from the asthma symptoms listed above, you should speak to a doctor. They will ask about your family history, medical history, workplace conditions, and lifestyle to establish risk factors. They may also ask you to do a lung function test.
Causes of Adult Onset Asthma
It isn’t known precisely what causes asthma, however risk factors for adults include:
- Bad allergies
- A bad cold or bout of the flu
Hormonal fluctuations in women can also be a risk factor for developing asthma, although it is not fully understood why. Some women find that they develop asthma during or shortly after their first pregnancy. Others find that their symptoms begin around the time of the menopause.
There are also many careers which can lead to the development of asthma as an adult. This is known as occupational asthma.
The most common type of occupational asthma is “allergic”. This is where you develop an allergic reaction to certain substances that you are frequently exposed to in your workplace. Over time, this exposure leads your immune system to become sensitive to that particular allergen, which means that when you are later exposed to it – even a small amount – you can have a reaction and your asthma symptoms can flare up.
These substances are known as respiratory sensitisers because of the effect they have on the airways over time. Some that can cause occupational asthma include:
- Isocyanates, a chemical found in vehicle spray paint
- Amylase, an additive used by bakeries
- Flour dust
- Wood dust
- Soldering fumes
- Animal fur, feathers, dander, saliva
- Agricultural dust (from grain, poultry, fungal spores, soil etc.)
- Vapour from metal working fluids
- Persulphate, a chemical found in hairdressers’ bleach
You can find a more exhaustive list of respiratory sensitisers here.
A less common type of occupational asthma is caused by one-off exposure to specific irritants such as chlorine or ammonia.
Treatment of Asthma in Adults
If you are diagnosed with asthma as an adult, your treatment will be tailored depending upon your specific needs, and will usually involve the daily use of a preventer inhaler. You will also require a reliever inhaler to soothe your symptoms in the event of a flare-up or asthma attack.
Along with medical treatment, your doctor may also recommend certain lifestyle changes. These may include quitting smoking, losing weight and trying out complementary therapies such as yoga and breathing exercises.
It is also recommended that you create a written asthma action plan where you keep track of all your medication and asthma triggers, and have a plan for seeking medical attention in the event of an asthma attack.