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While most people who suffer from asthma experience symptoms early in life, the disease develops at any age. It’s not uncommon for adults in their 70s or 80s to develop asthma symptoms, which can become a serious health problem. According to a new review in Allergy older adults are five times more likely to die from an asthma attack than younger patients.

Asthma is a chronic airway disease that inflames and narrows the airways. While asthma symptoms vary from person to person, those who have suffered from an attack won’t forget the signs:

• Difficulty catching breath

• Coughing and/or wheezing

• Rapid breathing

• Tightness in chest or pain

• Fast heart rate

Some asthmas sufferers have specific triggers that create flare-ups:

• Exercise-induced asthma is seen in asthmatics who show symptoms during physical exertion. It may also worsen when the air is cold and dry.

• Occupational asthma occurs when symptoms are triggered by workplace irritants such as chemical fumes, gases or dust.

• Allergy-induced asthma is triggered by airborne substances, such as pollen, mold spores, cockroach waste pet dander. These are the most common allergies, but the list is endless and could even include food sensitivities.

Asthma tends to be fairly easy to diagnosis in younger patients while evidence suggests that older asthmatics are more likely to be under-diagnosed and under-treated. This happens for a number of reasons. First of all, an elderly patient who has never shown asthma symptoms can easily be misdiagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as both diseases overlap in patients. Other health conditions may also mask asthma symptoms.

The natural aging process also makes asthma difficult to detect in older patients. As we advance in years, our lungs become less elastic, chest walls more rigid, and muscles that power the respiratory system weaken, which all worsen breathing problems. The immune system’s response to inflammation also begins to wane. Therefore, an increase in breathing problems or coughing is common as we age and often times shrugged off.

All asthma sufferers are encouraged to work with their doctor to monitor and keep symptoms under control. Older asthmatics may want to be particularly cognizant of any changes. Shifts in patterns of inflammation and other biological changes can reduce a patient’s response to medications. Additionally, there is mounting evidence that suggests traditional asthma therapies may not be as effective on elderly asthmatic patients.

If you are asthmatic and your symptoms are worsening, or if you think you may be showing symptoms for the first time, it’s important you talk with your doctor. There are a variety of tests and factors your physician can use to rule out other possible conditions. In the meantime, there are lifestyle tips you can implement to prevent and relieve symptoms. Avoid triggers by taking the following steps:

• Use an air conditioner. By using an air conditioner, indoor humidity lowers, reducing exposure to dust mites. It also decreases the amount of airborne pollen, grasses and weeds that find their way inside.

• Decrease the dust that accumulates indoors. Use dustproof covers on pillows, mattresses and box springs. Replace carpet with hardwood or linoleum flooring. You can also purchase washable curtains and blinds.

• If humidity is an issue, talk to your doctor about a dehumidifier.

• Prevent mold spores from developing by keeping damps areas of the house clean, such as the bathroom and kitchen, and removed any damp leaves or firewood in the yard.

• If you are allergic to pet dander, avoid animals with feathers or fur and have pets regularly bathed and groomed.

• Asthmatics who are triggered by cold or dry air are encouraged to wear a face mask when outdoors.

• Keeping a weekly house cleaning schedule can also help. Be sure to wear a mask if you are sensitive to dust or have someone else do the cleaning.

Finally, staying healthy is a major factor in keeping your asthma under control. Be sure to get regular exercise to help strengthen your heart and lungs. Additionally, keeping a healthy weight helps prevent worsening symptoms and complications.

You might not be able to change the fact you have asthma, but you can take control of it.

— You can reach St. Mary’s Medical Center at 816-228-5900.