6 Things That Raise Your Risk of Adult-Onset Asthma 

Adult-onset asthma is more common than you might think — and more dangerous, too. Here are a few ways to lower your risk of adult-onset asthma.      

Mid adult woman using inhaler.

Think asthma is just for kids? Think again. About 22 million American adults have asthma, compared with about 4.5 million kids. And almost 40% of adults with asthma had at least 1 asthma attack in the last year.  

Asthma often shows up in childhood. But some people don’t show signs of it until they’re adults. This is called adult-onset asthma, says Marc Kai, M.D. Dr. Kai is a primary care physician with Mercy Family Care Physicians in Baltimore.   

“Just like with childhood asthma, it means that certain triggers cause the smooth muscle around the airways in the lungs to spasm or constrict,” Dr. Kai explains. “This prevents enough oxygen from getting way down the lungs.” The result? Symptoms such as wheezing, chest tightness, and feeling short of breath.  

There’s no cure for asthma. But there are a lot of treatments that work, says Dr. Kai. It’s also important to know your triggers. “When you figure out yours, you can make a plan to avoid them,” says Dr. Kai.  

Keep reading to learn how to lower your risk of adult-onset asthma, as well as 6 common triggers. Plus, find ways to help ease and prevent symptoms.  

Trigger: Childhood asthma.   

If you had asthma as a child, you may be at greater risk as an adult. “Once you’ve been diagnosed with asthma, you can carry that forever,” says Dr. Kai. Or you may have always had very mild asthma that wasn’t diagnosed. This can get worse as you get older.    

Trigger: Being overweight and obese.   

People who are overweight or obese are more likely to have asthma. Over 60% of adults with severe asthma have obesity. The reasons aren’t quite clear. It may be that extra weight around the chest and stomach constricts the lungs. That can make it harder to breathe. People who are overweight or obese may also have more inflammation in their bodies. That can impact their lungs.   

Trigger: Allergens.   

Allergens are one of the most common asthma triggers. Common ones include: 

  • Pollen.  
  • Pets.  
  • Mold.  
  • Dust.   

“We sometimes see patients who had undiagnosed childhood asthma, or who had asthma that was well controlled for years, until exposure to a certain trigger, like a pet, causes it to flare up,” says Dr. Kai.  

Trigger: Diet.   

Research shows that a high-fat diet raises inflammation in your airways. It also lowers your lung function. There may be a link between low vitamin D levels and asthma, too. 

One more unusual food trigger: microwave buttered popcorn. “If you take the bag out of the microwave and immediately inhale it, it can be a trigger,” Dr. Kai says. “There are some sort of volatile compounds in the artificial butter flavor.”   

Trigger: Smoking.   

Nearly 20% of adults with asthma in the United States smoke. Smoking itself isn’t a risk factor for asthma, says Dr. Kai. But it can make asthma worse if you have it. It can also make your lung function decline even faster. “The more you smoke, the more repeated the insult to your lungs,” says Dr. Kai.    

Trigger: Being a woman.   

Women have asthma almost twice as often as men. Doctors aren’t sure why. “It might be due in part to hormonal changes. This may help explain why asthma often gets more severe during menopause,” says Dr. Kai. The male hormone testosterone may also be protective in men. It’s been found to decrease airway swelling.   

How to get adult-onset asthma under control.  

It’s important to get control over your triggers, Kai advises. That means:  

  • Avoiding allergens or irritants that can cause you to have an attack.   
  • Adjusting your diet. Eat a fiber-rich diet full of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Get plenty of vitamin D, which can be found in fish and fortified foods. And skip the microwave popcorn — choose stovetop instead.  
  • Take steps to reach a healthy weight. Many health plans offer covered weight loss programs through a digital health management app such as Wellframe.   
  • Quitting smoking. The Wellframe app offers quit-smoking programs through health plans, too.    

It’s also important to come up with an asthma action plan with your doctor. It includes instructions on:  

  • How to track your symptoms.   
  • What to do if you have a flare-up.   
  • What to do if you need emergency help.   

The plan usually has 3 zones:7  

  1. Green zone. Your lungs are doing well. Carry on as usual. 
  1. Yellow zone. You have frequent or more severe asthma symptoms. Talk to your doctor. Ask about changing or increasing your medications.    
  1. Red zone. You have severe symptoms that need treatment right way. You may need several medications.    

The bottom line.  

Learning you have adult-onset asthma may feel scary. But the good news is, “There are plenty of treatments out there to help get symptoms under control,” says Dr. Kai.     


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