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Feature Article Got a Nagging Cough or Wheeze? It Could Be Adult Asthma

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Asthma is a disease usually diagnosed in children, and symptoms often ease as they enter puberty and adulthood. But asthma can develop at any time, and adults who have never before had symptoms can experience asthma for the first time, even into their 50s and 60s.

When Asthma Begins

Asthma is a lung disease that causes the airways to swell and produce excess mucus when a “trigger” causes an attack. An asthma attack is characterized by tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing. Some people also experience a dry cough or a wheeze during exhalation.

“It can be harder to identify asthma as an adult because sometimes we dismiss our symptoms or associate them with something else,” said Mary Jo Eyler, a respiratory therapist and certified asthma educator at Samaritan Albany General Hospital. “But ignoring the symptoms is dangerous.”

The exact cause of asthma isn’t clear, but it is most likely a combination of genetics and environmental triggers like smoke, mold or animal dander.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, women are more at risk for asthma due to hormonal fluctuations like pregnancy and menopause. Those who are allergic to cats or are obese are also at an increased risk.

Having the flu or a bad cold can be enough to set off asthma symptoms for the first time, according to Eyler. “If you have a chest cold that hasn’t gone away in 10 days or respiratory symptoms leftover from the flu 10 days after your fever is gone, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor.”

The Dangers of Asthma

Side effects of uncontrolled asthma can affect your sleep and keep you from breathing well during work or recreation activities. It can also lead to irreversible narrowing of the airways in the lungs and permanent lung damage.

Eyler reports that lung function naturally decreases starting in the mid-30s but uncontrolled asthma can speed up the process. When the lungs aren’t working normally, the back and neck muscles work harder to try and help the lungs pump air in and out, blood oxygen levels drop, and you become tired more easily.

Asthma can masquerade as other conditions such as heart failure, rheumatoid arthritis, hiatal hernia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Your doctor will want to rule out these other conditions and possibly test your lung function. You may also need to be tested for allergies so you can manage your triggers to prevent an asthma attack.

How to Help Your Lungs

Weight lifting strengthens your muscles, jogging strengthens your heart, and breathing exercises can strengthen your lungs and improve your lung function. The two exercises Eyler recommends most often to help people with lung conditions are belly breathing and pursed lip breathing.  

Belly breathing strengthens the diaphragm, a muscle in the abdomen that helps the lungs bring air in and out. To practice belly breathing, place your hands on your abdomen and breathe in through your nose, letting your belly fill with air. Then breath out through your mouth, letting the exhale take two or three times longer than the inhale.

Pursed lip breathing trains airways to stay open longer, allowing more air to come in and out of the lungs with each breath. Breathe in through your nose and out through pursed lips, letting your breath out take twice as long as your breath in. 

“Ten or 15 minutes a day of focused breathing exercises can help combat the lung deterioration that occurs with asthma,” said Eyler. “But it’s best if you start it right away.”

A Future with Asthma

Although there is no cure for asthma, you can manage your symptoms and control asthma attacks by taking your medications as prescribed. This may include a daily medication and a rescue inhaler for if you have an asthma attack. You should be aware of your allergies and asthma triggers so you can avoid them. Getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight can also help manage or even improve your asthma symptoms.

For people who have difficulty exercising or performing daily living tasks because of their asthma, pulmonary rehabilitation may be able to help.

“If you feel like breathing has gotten more difficult lately, don’t wait to talk to your doctor,” said Eyler.

If you have asthma or difficulty breathing, talk to your doctor to find out if pulmonary rehabilitation is right for you.

Learn more about asthma in our health library.