Here we discuss people’s experience of being diagnosed as an adult.
Often people who were diagnosed with asthma as adults said they hadn’t realised it can develop at any time of life. It could be difficult to accept to begin with, especially as it may take a while to find the right medication to control it.
Eileen said, “I just couldn’t understand why I suddenly had asthma. I’d had nothing before.”
Val was shocked to be told she had asthma, even though other people in her family had it: “How can someone as fit as me get asthma?”, she said.
Alice was diagnosed with asthma in her early 20’s it took about two years to find the right combination of medication to control it. [TEXT ONLY]
Julies asthma was diagnosed in her 40s after a persistent cough. Until then she had thought of asthma as something children had and could grow out of.
Val had led a fit and active life until she got asthma in her 50s; the diagnosis shocked her.
In older people, asthma symptoms are more likely to be triggered by colds and chest infections, exercise, stress or environmental triggers such as cigarette smoke, rather than allergy.
It can be hard to tell the difference between asthma and other conditions causing similar symptoms, such as bronchitis or other chest infections, emphysema (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD), and heart disease, so sometimes it may take a while to diagnose asthma in older adults.
Ann’s first experience of asthma was a severe episode of difficulty breathing. Her GP sent her to the hospital for a chest X-ray, but when the junior doctor at the hospital looked at the X-ray he said he thought she had a problem with her heart and did not immediately diagnose asthma. It took several months for Ann to get the right diagnosis, which made her anxious and upset, and this in turn made her asthma worse.
Ann was going through the menopause when she first experienced asthma. She later discovered through Asthma UK that a drop in hormone levels can trigger asthma in some women.
Many people talked about adult-onset asthma being diagnosed after they had been out walking, cycling or taking some form of exercise and had suddenly felt unusually breathless or wheezy. Others, like Peter and Charles, were diagnosed after finding it difficult to shake off a cough or chest infection.
Looking back, some people like Val who had a family history of asthma said they later realised that they had experienced other signs and symptoms in the past, but it had not occurred to them it might be asthma. Others asked the doctor if it could be asthma, as their symptoms were similar to those of other family members.
Alice only discovered after she was diagnosed that there was asthma on both sides of her family.
Often people said it took a while to accept the diagnosis and its implications, such as having to be more careful about activities and their environment, as well as using medication, particularly learning to use inhalers. Some were shocked to have a potentially life-threatening condition.
When he was first diagnosed as an adult Peter didn’t know what to expect or how it might affect his life. Some people are much worse affected than he is.
Catherine, who has had asthma all her life, reflected on how different the experience must be for people who develop it later in life.
Catherine has had asthma since early childhood but can understand that for people diagnosed as adults it can be life changing.
Whereas some young people ‘grow out of’ childhood-onset asthma as they get older, adult-onset asthma is likely to be lifelong, but many people did not realise this. Jane, for example, was quite shocked that she had a condition which would not go away. “I suppose I’d not seen myself as invincible, but I’d never been ill. I’m not somebody who even gets colds very often. And suddenly I got this condition that wasn’t going to go away.”
Once people with adult-onset asthma have learnt to manage their symptoms, they may find their asthma remains stable. Stephen had recently been diagnosed and hopes to live as normal a life as possible:
Stephen is 25 and thinks his asthma might have to do with smoking while living abroad. He is optimistic and hopes that asthma won’t disrupt his life.
Most people can almost completely control their symptoms with medication. But in some, symptoms may change or get worse over time, and that can be difficult to face.
Peter said that for the first couple of years having asthma didn’t affect him too much, but over time it has got worse and over the last 15 years he’s tried various medications.
David did not worry when diagnosed because his children had asthma and could control it well, but over time he has got worse.
Esther had always strongly opposed any medication and took a while to accept using her inhaler:
Esther disliked the thought of using any kind of medication.
A person may have to try several different inhalers to find the one that best controls the symptoms:
Eileen felt almost suicidal at the beginning because she was so unwell, but over time she has worked out her triggers and strategies to manage her asthma, and now finds she rarely has to use her inhalers at all.
Jane spent months trying out different inhalers to get things under control.
Occasionally adult-onset asthma is triggered by something at work. See Andreane’s account of occupational asthma in Asthma in the workplace.
(Also see Being diagnosed with asthma, Early signs and symptoms, Medication and treatment: inhalers, Managing asthma: reviews and action plans, Exercise, diet, weight and lifestyle issues, Coping and emotions and Triggers).