Age and Asthma

Many people think of asthma as a childhood disease, but it often occurs as a new condition in older adults.

Asthma in older adults presents some special concerns because the normal effects of aging can make asthma harder to diagnose.

“Unlike young people with asthma, whose main symptom is wheezing, seniors usually have a chronic cough,” according to Reynold Panettieri Jr., M.D., professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. “For this reason, asthma in older adults may be undiagnosed or misdiagnosed as a cold.”

It also can be hard to distinguish asthma from heart failure, which can cause wheezing, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which in turn can cause a chronic cough.

A correct diagnosis is critical because the treatment of these diseases is very different.

Asthma symptoms

  • Coughing, especially at night

  • Wheezing

  • Chest tightness

  • Shortness of breath

  • Breathing faster than normal

  • Getting out of breath easily

  • Feeling tired or weak

If you have any of these symptoms, see your health care provider.

Taking care

“Most asthma attacks start slowly,” says Dr. Panettieri. “You can learn to tell when one is coming if you keep track of the symptoms you have and how bad they are. If you respond early to the first signs your asthma is getting worse, you can prevent serious asthma episodes.”

Before you begin any asthma treatment, be sure your doctor knows about all the medications you take because asthma drugs can have adverse side effects when taken with other medications.

“If you must take inhaled asthma medicine, check with your doctor to make sure you’re taking it right,” Dr. Panettieri says.  “Health problems such as arthritis may make it difficult to use inhalers correctly.”


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