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Asthma in Older Adults: Managing Your Symptoms

Reviewed by 
Jean Reidy, NP

Article at a glance

  • About 8% of the U.S. population has asthma, and this condition can be diagnosed in childhood or later in life.

  • Symptoms of asthma in older people include shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, chest pain, and tightness in the chest.

  • Doctors use various techniques to diagnose asthma, including a complete physical exam, a review of family history, and tests of your lungs. 

  • Asthma in older adults can be treated with prescription medications.

  • Other ways to manage asthma in seniors include avoiding asthma triggers, developing an asthma action plan, scheduling follow-up visits, and treating related health conditions. 

People can develop asthma at any age, but asthma in seniors often requires more careful treatment. Since many older adults live with other chronic conditions that have similar symptoms, asthma needs to be closely managed. Fortunately, healthcare providers can diagnose late-onset asthma with a variety of tools and then develop a tailored treatment plan. Additionally, asthma in older adults can be managed by controlling environmental factors and maintaining open communication with healthcare providers when symptoms change or worsen. With a treatment plan and careful management of symptoms, seniors can live a full life with asthma.

Asthma in Seniors

Some seniors with asthma have been living with the condition since childhood. Others might have been diagnosed with asthma later in life. Regardless of how long you have lived with this chronic condition, it’s important to understand how to manage it. There are a variety of treatments available to help keep you breathing well.

Statistics

About 26.5 million Americans, or 8% of the population, have asthma. Even though asthma often begins in childhood, late-onset asthma (also known as adult-onset asthma) can occur too. This refers to any asthma that is diagnosed during adulthood, even during senior years. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, 7.6% of adults aged 65 or older have asthma. 

Understanding how to treat asthma in older adults is essential. The American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology reports that 3,500 people die of asthma annually, and almost half of those deaths occur in people aged 65 or older. Fortunately, asthma in seniors has many treatment and management options.

Asthma Symptoms in Older Adults

Asthma symptoms are standard across age groups, so late-onset asthma has the same symptoms as cases diagnosed earlier in life. Symptoms of asthma in seniors include the following:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Chest pain or tightness

  • Coughing at night, during exercise, or when laughing

  • Wheezing

  • Waking up often at night

These symptoms can indicate other health conditions as well. But, if you have one or more asthma symptoms that persist, talk to your healthcare provider.

Late Onset Asthma: Diagnosis and Treatment

Doctors use a variety of tests to make an asthma diagnosis in adult patients. Based on the results of these tests, you can work with your healthcare provider to identify a treatment and management plan for your asthma.

Diagnosis

If you suspect you might have asthma, a visit to the clinic is in order. You can expect your provider to review your medical history, including your family history and any allergies, and complete a physical exam. Your provider may also choose to give you a lung function test. Several different tests are available, and each can be performed in your doctor’s office. The goal of these tests is to determine how well you can inhale (breathe in) and exhale (breathe out). 

At this point, your provider may feel comfortable diagnosing asthma. Or, you may have additional tests, such as allergy tests. Working with an allergist can help guide your asthma diagnosis as well. Your provider may also want to rule out other conditions before making a diagnosis. So, it’s important to understand that diagnosing asthma requires a thorough examination and testing, which may occur in one or multiple visits.

You may be diagnosed with one of four types of asthma, which are determined based on how often and how frequently you have symptoms and how intense they are. In order of least severe to most severe, these types include:

  • Intermittent asthma

  • Mild persistent asthma

  • Moderate persistent asthma

  • Severe persistent asthma

Treatment

When provider diagnose asthma in seniors, they work alongside their patients to make a treatment plan. Often, the treatment begins with daily medication that works to ease or stop asthma symptoms. Doctors will also help patients develop an asthma action plan and identify their asthma triggers so that they can avoid them. Even though asthma is a chronic condition for some seniors, its symptoms can be managed.

How to Manage Asthma in Older Adults

Asthma in older adults can be riskier than asthma in younger populations. Therefore, it’s important to carefully manage late-onset asthma to minimize symptoms and the frequency of asthma attacks. Fortunately, seniors can use a variety of strategies to help control their asthma.

Reduce Triggers

Seniors with asthma should identify their triggers and work to avoid them to reduce their symptoms. Asthma triggers vary from person to person but may include:

  • Allergens, such as pet dander or pollen

  • Cold, dry air

  • Air pollution

  • Strong odors or chemicals

  • Viral respiratory infections like cold and flu

  • Exercise

  • Smoke

Newly diagnosed seniors with asthma should write down their triggers as they notice them. Then, they can make thoughtful choices to avoid them to reduce or eliminate their symptoms. 

Establish a Medication Plan With Your Provider

Asthma can be treated with a number of prescription medications. Talk to your provider about which medicine is right for you. Pay attention to the frequency of the dosing. Some medicines should be taken daily, while others are taken when asthma symptoms begin. Stay on top of your asthma medication regimen to ease your symptoms.

In some older adults, other health conditions can worsen their asthma. For example, frequent viral respiratory infections may be an asthma trigger. Having allergies or acid reflux may also worsen asthma. Maintaining your overall health can help reduce asthma’s impact on your everyday life.

Write an Asthma Action Plan

An asthma action plan serves as your guide on how to manage asthma. Ask your provider doctor to help you complete it so that you know what to do when asthma symptoms begin. Your asthma action plan should list:

  • Medication dosage and frequency

  • How to recognize worsening symptoms

  • How to respond to worsening symptoms

  • When to call your clinic

Schedule Regular Follow-Up Visits

Asthma is a chronic condition, meaning it requires ongoing care. See your provider for regular follow-up visits to discuss your medication and share any new or worsening symptoms. Your provider can guide you on how often you should schedule these visits.

Notify Your Provider

If new or worsening asthma symptoms develop, reach out to your clinic. You might need to schedule an appointment to discuss these symptoms, adjust your medication, or complete a physical exam. Managing asthma in seniors can be more challenging due to changes in aging lungs and other health conditions. So, it’s important to work with your provider to manage your asthma and overall health.

If you have asthma symptoms that persist, talk to your provider about your concerns. Your primary care provider or an allergy specialist can work with you to diagnose and treat your asthma. Focus on identifying environmental or health triggers for your late-onset asthma so that you can avoid them and minimize your symptoms. Additionally, stay on top of your healthcare by visiting your doctor regularly and reaching out should new or worsening symptoms develop. With a well-designed care plan in place, you can reduce the impact of asthma on your everyday life. 

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