Asthma All Grown Up

Adult-onset asthma: what is it?

Asthma All Grown Up

Shortness of breath. Wheezing. Coughing. Tightness in the chest.

Those unpleasant sensations are all symptoms of adult-onset asthma: asthma that begins once someone is beyond their teens. We usually think of asthma in relation to children or athletes, but it’s a growing problem for adults. The most common symptom is difficulty breathing, and the triggers are varied. Educating yourself on the triggers and symptoms can help you keep colleagues with asthma safe.

An adult-onset asthma primer

The most obvious difference between childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma is the age at which it first occurs. Adult-onset asthma also tends to be more severe, progresses more quickly (lung function deteriorates more quickly) and has more persistent symptoms. Although allergies are an underlying issue in many adult asthma cases, it’s less common than among children.

The risk factors for adult-onset asthma range from gender (women are more likely than men to get it) to a history of domestic or sexual abuse. Psychological stress and exposure to air pollution and second-hand smoke can also increase your risk.

If you have asthma, your airways suffer from one or more of inflammation, increased mucus production and spasms. These events cause your airways to narrow, making it harder to breathe. In severe cases, not being able to breathe properly can be fatal.


Asthma symptoms can be triggered by many factors. Among the most common triggers are pollution, scented products, weather changes and stress. Exercise, infections and allergies are also culprits for some people.

Scented products

Exposure to perfume has been shown to increase the body’s release of histamine, one of the main chemicals contributing to allergy and asthma symptoms. Among people with respiratory symptoms triggered by perfume, this histamine release appears to be even greater.


Allergens that trigger asthma symptoms are commonly those that can trigger hay fever symptoms in others. These include animal dander, dust mites, mold and pollen.

Pollution, smoke, stress

These risk factors are also associated with increased hospital admissions for asthma symptoms.


Prescription medications

The standard approach to treating asthma involves two categories of medications: those that are preventive (inhaled steroids etc. that are taken daily for long-term control of symptoms) and those that are used when symptoms occur (sometimes called “rescue medications” or bronchodilators).

Most asthma medications are inhaled and dispensed using “puffers” that release small amounts of medicine into people’s airways.

Psychological interventions

Preliminary research shows these interventions could offer some benefit for asthma symptoms, particularly when stress and/or abuse are part of an individual’s history:

  • relaxation therapy
  • biofeedback
  • cognitive behavioral therapy
Trigger avoidance

Using HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters, avoiding triggers like enclosed areas where particulate matter may be high and not smoking can help prevent asthma episodes.


While not a replacement for standard medical care, some nutrients may be helpful additions to asthma management. Potentially useful supplements include vitamin C, magnesium and essential fatty acids. Speak with your doctor or health care practitioner about which supplements are right for you.