By Emily King
When people think of asthma, they often think of it as a childhood disease. Most childhood asthma, and the symptoms such as wheezing, cough, chest tightness and shortness of breath, improve by early adulthood. However, asthma can occur in adults as well. Many adults have had symptoms in childhood, but were never properly diagnosed. Symptoms can also start after the age of 20, which is categorized as adult-onset asthma. According to Dr. Mark Sperry of Washington Health System, millions of adults (up to 5-10 percent) experience asthma symptoms.
Asthma is a disease caused by narrowing of the airways of the lungs. This can occur due to inflammation or allergic reaction. Narrowing occurs due to contractions of the muscles surrounding the airways. Asthma sufferers may also produce large amounts of mucus that is thicker than normal.
There are several factors that increase the risk of adult asthma. The most common risk factors include a family history of asthma or frequent allergic reactions. Other less common factors include obesity, acid reflux, smoking and occupational exposures. Women are twice as likely to be diagnosed with adult asthma as men are.
There are also environmental exposures – called triggers – that can worsen asthma symptoms. Common triggers include inhaled allergens such as pet dander, pollen, mold and mildew. Sperry notes that he always asks about dust mites and cockroaches in the home, as these are two of the most common causes of year-round allergies and asthma. If there are any allergy symptoms, he often advises his patients to get additional testing from an allergy specialist.
Unfortunately, a common environmental trigger in Western Pennsylvania is air pollution. Asthma sufferers are advised to pay attention to air quality alerts and take special precautions on these days.
Other triggers include cold air, humidity, smoke and some cleaning products. Avoiding asthma triggers is the cornerstone of controlling asthma symptoms.
Most of the time, asthma is diagnosed based on the patient’s symptoms and exposures. Sperry can conduct pulmonary function testing before and after receiving an inhaled irritant or a medication that opens the airways. Sometimes he also conducts allergy testing. If a patient is diagnosed with more advanced asthma, he asks the patient to perform “peak flow monitoring” at home in order to track the severity of symptoms.
Adult asthma isn’t a curable condition, but it can be very well managed with proper treatment and education. Learning how to recognize individual triggers and symptoms is the best way to avoid asthma exacerbations. There are also several medications that can be used, of which Albuterol is probably the most well-known. Patients can use short-acting inhalers when experiencing asthma symptoms as well as long-acting inhalers that can prevent symptoms. These medications can be used in conjunction with allergy-control medications. It is also important that asthma sufferers receive regular influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations.
If you think you are suffering from the symptoms of adult asthma, please contact Dr. Sperry’s office at 724.222.2577.