Asthma is a condition that causes the linings of the lungs to swell. There are as many as 15 million Americans saddled with this disorder and it may be triggered, in part, by allergies contracted during childhood or even as adults, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). If asthma is diagnosed in someone who’s older than age 20, it’s known as adult onset asthma.
Although the airways swell, they also become narrower and produce more mucus because of muscle contractions triggered by this disorder, according to MedicineNet.com.
What are the symptoms of asthma?
- Shortness of breath.
- Persistent cough, especially at night.
- Wheezing-a whistling noise that occurs when you breathe.
- Difficulty breathing.
What are the symptoms of adult onset asthma, according to the AAFA?
- Dry cough, often in response to a specific trigger. The cough is usually more frequent at night.
- Tightness or pressure in the chest.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Shortness of breath after exercise
- Colds that wind up in the chest or hang on for more than 10 days.
Since I’ve had adult onset asthma for the last 12 years, I’ve become familiar with the symptoms, and the one that seems to affect me the most is the last one. With me, colds and other respiratory ailments eventually wind up in my chest and often turn into pneumonia. It’s happened to me twice in the last year. This type of asthma is one stubborn disorder, and it’s one of the things that differentiate it from childhood asthma. Childhood asthma is often triggered by allergies, unlike the adult form. The AAFA notes that because of its persistence, daily medications may be needed to make the disorder behave.
Our lung capacity decreases as we grow older, and sometimes doctors overlook asthma because of this. If untreated, this can lead to an even greater loss of lung function. Detection can also be difficult because it mimics a variety of other ailments, especially in older folks. Hiatal hernia, stomach problems, and rheumatoid arthritis are a few illnesses that have asthma-like symptoms, the AAFA reports.
What causes asthma?
Doctors are not sure what the causes are. Evidence does suggest, however, that asthma and allergies may, in part, be hereditary. Women are more likely than men to develop asthma after age 20, and in some cases, obesity appears to play a role in the development of adult onset asthma.
Allergies also trigger some 30 percent of asthma in adults. People with allergies to cats may also be at risk for developing this type of asthma later in life.
Other triggers include:
- Cigarette smoke. Adult onset asthma isn’t caused by cigarette smoking, but if you do smoke, you should quit. Cigarettes will certainly make the illness worse.
- Feather bedding.
Prolonged exposure to chemicals in your place of work can also cause trigger asthma symptoms in adults, and apart from heredity, this is one reason why I have asthma. Along with several other people, I ran a suicide hotline and worked as a mental health counselor at a local board-and-care home. One of my responsibilities was cleaning the bathroom and the kitchen. I was fanatical about cleanliness and used gallons of ammonia and pine-based cleaners in the bathroom. Part of my over-zealous cleaning was due to the fact that we had clients come in with hairy-scary ailments. It wasn’t unusual to see people afflicted with hepatitis A, B, and C simultaneously. So I cleaned the small bathroom with ammonia and breathed in a few too many fumes. Over a few short weeks I realized I was becoming short of breath. My lungs seemed to close up when I was cleaning.
It was time to see my doctor.
How is adult onset asthma diagnosed?
The doctor asked lots of questions, especially about my family history (asthma features prominently in my family; my dad-who passed away some years ago-had asthma, as does my sister). He listened to my lungs and scheduled me for a chest x-ray. The x-ray allows your doctor to see if you may have some other problem instead of asthma causing your symptoms. As a rule, asthma doesn’t show up in an x-ray. Using a spirometer, my doctor also tested my lung function to see just how forcefully I could exhale. I didn’t do well, and this was how my doctor came to the conclusion that I had asthma. So he prescribed two inhalers for me. One was albuterol, and unfortunately, I don’t remember what the other one was.
Another test that’s sometimes performed is the methacholine challenge test. If your symptoms and spirometry test don’t clearly show asthma, your doctor may conduct this test. If inhaled, methacholine causes your airways to spasm and become narrow if asthma is present. In the test, the doctor has you inhale increasing amounts of methacholine before and after using the spirometer. If the test turns out positive, this means asthma is present, MedicineNet reports.
There’s no cure for asthma, but you and your doctor should be able to work out a successful treatment program.
This can help you to:
- Live an active and normal life.
- Prevent chronic and troublesome symptoms.
- Attend work or school daily.
- Stop urgent visits to the doctor or emergency room.
- Use and adjust your medications to control asthma with few or no side effects.
What treatments are used to control asthma?
- Anti-inflammatory medications are often prescribed, and they are crucial for most of us with asthma. These medications, including inhaled steroids, reduce swelling and the production of mucus in our airways. These airways become less sensitive, and less likely to respond to asthma triggers. These medications must be taken daily, and it may take a few weeks before they begin to take effect. Over time, you’ll notice you can breathe easier; you’ll have fewer symptoms and less problems with asthma.
- Bronchodilators. These medications quickly act to relax the muscles that constrict the airways, opening them up and making inhaling and exhaling easier. Bronchodilators also clear out mucus. When your airways open up, it’s easier to cough up the mucus.
These medications are administered in a variety of ways-by being inhaled through a metered dose inhaler, a dry powder inhaler, or through a nebulizer — an odd-looking gadget that looks similar to an old fashioned vacuum cleaner attachment that you might use to clean the tops of your curtains. Although it is a lot smaller, I might add.
I’ve taken anti-inflammatory medications and bronchodilators. There are times when I don’t know what I would have done without them. An asthma attack feels like a slow form of suffocation. Your eyeballs pound, your heart hammers, you start to sweat, and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t catch your breath. I keep my inhaler handy so that I can get quick relief when I need it. I have to admit, when I first started having attacks, I was freaked out because I truly thought I was going to suffocate.
What a dreadful feeling.
Now I’m fairly used to it. In some ways, I consider this ailment to be beneficial, because it’s made me more empathetic to other people, it’s given me a better understanding of how my lungs work, and it’s made me appreciate the days when I don’t have problems. Believe me, every day without asthma is a good day.