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Adult asthma

Asthma is a common, long-term condition that can affect people of all ages. It causes inflammation in the airways.

The term adult asthma refers to either:

  • Childhood asthma that has continued into adulthood
  • Asthma that has returned after being present in childhood and then disappearing
  • Asthma that has developed only in adulthood
  • Adult asthma is often linked with allergies and accompanied by other allergic conditions, such as hayfever. Adult asthma is more common in females.
Last Update 06/04/2021
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Symptoms


Adult asthma causes on-going symptoms of wheezing, breathlessness, chest tightness and coughing. These symptoms can occur any time, but particularly at night or in the early morning.

Adults with asthma can display a wide range of these symptoms, with different levels of severity. Sometimes symptoms can worsen over hours or minutes, leading to a severe restriction of the airways known as an asthma attack. This is usually only relieved by extra medication, or in severe cases, hospitalisation. Some very severe episodes can be life-threatening, although death from an asthma attack is uncommon.

Worsening of symptoms is usually provoked by lung infections. These are especially common in winter and after the summer holiday period.

In adults who have allergies alongside their asthma, symptoms are provoked by exposure to allergens, such as house dust, pets, or materials at work. Other common triggers include physical exertion in cold or dry air and traffic pollution.

Causes


Most adult asthma begins in childhood. Two-thirds of children with asthma see the condition disappear in their teenage years. About a third of these cases reappear in adulthood.

The risk of developing asthma is linked to genetic factors, i.e. the genes a person inherits from their parents, and environmental factors, such as exposure to allergens or pollutants. When these factors interact, for example a person who is genetically susceptible living in a highly polluted area, it increases the risk further.

Researchers have identified a small number of genes that make people more susceptible to developing asthma. However, further research is needed to test different genes and their impact on the condition.

One important type of asthma in adulthood is occupational asthma. This is caused by materials in the workplace. It is thought that 15% of all adult asthma is work-related.

Prevention


In most cases of asthma, the origins of the condition are unknown and it is difficult to know the best way to prevent its development. The main exception to this is occupational asthma, which can be prevented if exposure to the material causing the asthma is carefully controlled, or a person is removed from the exposure.

In general, prevention or control of asthma symptoms is possible with medication.

Treatment


There is no widely used test that can diagnose asthma therefore it is identified and assessed by responses to questionnaires, simple tests looking at lung function and information on hospital attendances and drug prescriptions.

The symptoms of asthma are also not specific to the condition. It is therefore likely to be confused with other conditions such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

There is no cure for most types of adult asthma, therefore the primary goal is to manage rather than cure the condition. This includes achieving and maintaining control of symptoms, and preventing any worsening of symptoms and asthma attacks.

Healthcare professionals use the term ‘asthma control’ to refer to how well the symptoms are managed and the impact they have on daily activities. The term ‘asthma severity’ is used to describe the difficulty in controlling asthma with treatment and helps doctors decide what level of treatment is required.

Management of the condition includes:

  • Avoiding passive or active smoking
  • Identifying any factors that trigger or worsen symptoms
  • Avoiding exposure to airborne allergens
  • Avoiding exposure to high levels of air pollution

Asthma control remains relatively poor in Europe, despite the increasing use of asthma medications. Medications include:

  • Controller medication: This medication is taken regularly to build up a protective effect against asthma symptoms. This medication is usually in the form of inhaled corticosteroids (ICS), used with or without long-acting β-agonists
  • Reliever medication: These are taken to relieve asthma symptoms. They relax the muscles surrounding the narrowed airways and can be used in the event of an asthma attack or worsening of symptoms. These are usually in the form of short-acting β-agonists

Each person is different and will not require the same level of treatment. The doses of medication are therefore modified according to a person’s individual symptoms. It is important that people learn which treatment works for them to help them manage their condition by themselves.

About 10% of adults with asthma have persisting symptoms and exacerbations which they are unable to control, despite taking adequate treatment. This asthma is referred to as ‘difficult-to-treat’ asthma and can often have a damaging effect on a person’s quality of life.

Although death from asthma is relatively uncommon, it can occur in any adult with poorly controlled asthma.

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