Can you really outgrow asthma?
The answer is complicated. Learn what the experts say, and what you can do to help prevent symptoms for good.
Coughing, wheezing, trouble breathing, fear of an attack. If you’re among the 25 million Americans living with asthma — about 1 in 13 people — you’re familiar with these symptoms. You also probably know there’s no cure for asthma.
Still, many people have stretches of time when asthma symptoms disappear. And you’ve probably heard about kids with asthma whose symptoms also seem to stop altogether. Did their asthma go away? Can some people truly outgrow it?
“The answer is yes, but it is more complicated than a simple yes,” says Neil Schachter, MD. Dr. Schachter is a lung specialist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and author of The Good Doctor’s Guide to Colds and Flu. Here’s the scoop on how asthma can change over time. Plus, find ways to keep your asthma under control if you haven’t outgrown it.
More kids than adults outgrow their asthma.
Often, children under age 2 who show signs of asthma don’t go on to develop the condition. It starts with “wheezy bronchitis,” says Dr. Schachter. This usually follows a viral respiratory infection, such as a cold. And it’s often because babies and toddlers have very narrow airways.
“These airways are more likely to get infected, which can cause wheezy respiration,” Dr. Schachter explains. “About three-quarters of these children do get better and do not develop chronic asthma. Presumably their airways grow larger as they age, and this resolves the problem.”
Older kids under age 12 may develop respiratory allergies. Breathing in allergens such as pollen, dust, or mold can cause the airways to become inflamed and narrow. This sometimes leads to allergic asthma, which is asthma triggered by those same allergens. But during puberty, up to half of these kids become less symptomatic. Or they lose their asthmatic symptoms altogether, Dr. Schachter notes.
“Those children that go into the honeymoon phase may never experience asthma again,” says Dr. Schachter. “Or they may see their asthma resurface as they hit adulthood.” That’s especially common after they have a viral infection.
What about adults? Asthma in adults can improve or even go away. But this is much less common than in children, says Dr. Schachter. It may be because aging and long-term asthma cause an adult’s lung function to worsen over time.
Looking for ways to get your child’s asthma under control? Contact your health plan to see if you’re eligible for Wellframe.
Asthma triggers can change over time.
This often happens with age. In kids, allergies are among the most common triggers, says Dr. Schachter. So are exercise, weather, and exposure to respiratory infections. “We tend to see asthma flares in the fall, when children go back to school and are exposed to viruses as well as outdoor fall allergens,” he points out.
In adults, allergies play less of a role. Instead, their asthma is triggered more often by irritants such as cigarette smoke, perfume, cleaning products, or even air pollution. It’s important to learn what your asthma triggers are so you can avoid them.
You can record triggers in an asthma diary and share the diary with your doctor, who can help you make a plan for steering clear of your triggers. When you can avoid your triggers, you can reduce the severity and frequency of your asthma symptoms.
Here are 4 tips to help your asthma symptoms disappear.
1. If allergens are a trigger for you, get allergy tested.
First, here’s why allergies and asthma often go hand in hand.
You have an allergy attack when proteins in your immune system, known as antibodies, accidentally identify something harmless, such as dust mites, as a dangerous invader. To try to stop the invader, your antibodies bind to it. This causes a release of chemicals. In turn, those chemicals cause classic allergy symptoms. Think: itchy eyes, sneezing, or a runny nose.
This is your body’s way of trying to force out the invader. But sometimes, this same reaction affects your lungs, causing coughing and wheezing. That’s allergic asthma.
If you know your allergy triggers, you can avoid them, says Julie Ellis, MD. Dr. Ellis is a pediatric urgent care specialist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. The best way to do this: Talk to your doctor. They may decide allergy testing is necessary. The most common test is a skin test. Your doctor will prick the skin on your back or arms with small doses of certain allergens to see which ones cause a reaction.
If you test positive for allergies, there are therapies that can treat both allergies and asthma. These include:
- Montelukast (Singulair®). This type of medication is known as a leukotriene modifier. It helps control immune system chemicals that are released during an allergic reaction. That can ease both allergic and asthmatic symptoms.
- Allergy shots (immunotherapy). This involves getting regular shots of tiny amounts of your allergens. Over time, you build up a tolerance to them so you have less severe reactions. Research shows that this can help improve allergic asthma symptoms.
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2. Learn the right way to use your inhaler.
Inhalers are important for keeping your asthma under control. These are handheld devices that send medication to your lungs. But more than 90% of people don’t use them the right way.
The best way to use an inhaler, at any age, is with a spacer. This is a device that connects to your inhaler’s mouthpiece, says Dr. Ellis. It helps the medication get to your lungs instead of staying in your mouth or throat. Here’s how to use one.
- Attach the spacer to the inhaler.
- Breathe out gently to empty your lungs.
- Put the spacer between your teeth. Close your lips tightly around it.
- Begin to breathe in slowly through your mouth.
- Spray one puff into the spacer while you breathe in slowly and deeply.
- Remove the spacer from your mouth as you hold your breath and count to 10. Then slowly exhale through your mouth.
- When you’re done, rinse your mouth with water, then gargle and spit.
3. Stay up-to-date on your vaccines.
Respiratory infections such as a cold, the flu, or COVID-19 are all common causes of asthma flare-ups. That’s why it’s important to stay up-to-date on your vaccines and boosters. These include:
- Tdap (to protect against whooping cough).
- Pneumococcal (to protect against the bacterium that can cause pneumonia and meningitis).
Not sure where you stand with your vaccines? A digital health management tool such as Wellframe makes it easy to find out. These smartphone apps are offered by many health plans and employers. Wellframe can connect you with your care advocate to track down your records and schedule key appointments.
4. If you think your medication isn’t working, speak up.
“There’s no reason asthma can’t be well controlled, at any age,” says Dr. Ellis. “I’ve taken care of kids with asthma whose parents were professional athletes who also had asthma and were able to stay active through all the seasons because they had the right treatment plan.”
Signs that your asthma isn’t well controlled include:
- The need to use your quick-relief inhaler more than 2 times per week.
- Waking up at night with symptoms more than 2 times per month.
- Refilling your quick-relief inhaler more than 2 times each year.
If you’re experiencing any of these signs, reach out to your doctor to get the help and support you need. Just because you can’t outgrow asthma, doesn’t mean you can’t get it under control.
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