September 7th, 2011
06:59 PM ET

Can you develop asthma later in life?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Wednesdays, it's Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

Question from  Chuck, Columbus, Ohio

I am in 55 and just started having difficulty breathing on occasion. I am a usually healthy, slightly overweight, never smoker. Could I have developed asthma at this age?

Expert answer

Dear Chuck:

You need to be seen by an internist or family medicine physician who will assess you and may send you to a pulmonary specialist or cardiologist. It is very reasonable to go to an emergency room if you are having an attack of difficulty breathing.

While asthma usually starts in childhood, it can begin at any age. It can be due to allergy to specific things such as smoke, dust or even roach droppings in an older home or apartment.

Some people get asthma with exercise and some have what is known as reactive airway disease, in which dust or even cold air causes constriction of the bronchial tubes from the lungs and wheezing.

The episodic nature is an important part of asthma at any age. The classic signs of asthma are intermittent shortness of breath, cough, chest tightness and wheezing. These are nonspecific and can be symptoms of a number of diseases. They can be symptoms of diseases causing partial obstruction of the respiratory outflow such as viral or bacterial bronchitis.

More long-term diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as COPD, and rarely diffuse bronchiectasis or constrictive bronchiolitis can cause asthma-like symptoms.

Living with COPD? Take a breathing health test

Non-respiratory conditions such as congestive heart failure, gastroesophageal reflux can mimic or even coexist with asthma. A rare person with COPD is a nonsmoker. A younger person with asthma symptoms might also merit evaluation for some form of cystic fibrosis.

Some less common, but still seen causes of asthma-like symptoms include a reaction to the angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors used to treat blood pressure. These widely used drugs such as captopril, lisinopril and enalapril are well-known causes of a cough.

Viral and bacterial infections of the bronchial tree including pertussis can also cause asthma-like symptoms. A person with asthma-like symptoms will be given several breathing tests to firm up the diagnosis. Spirometry will look at how quickly one can exhale air and how deeply one can inhale.

Certain spirometry patterns are diagnostic of asthma especially if breathing tests improve or return to normal with inhaled bronchodilator therapy. When presenting with shortness of breath or wheezing, people with a history of tobacco smoking must always be evaluated for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Mild to moderate asthma is treated first by removal of anything that might trigger an attack. An inhaler with a beta-2 agonists taken as needed is then used.

Some patients will need a spacer in order to use an inhaler. More severe asthma is often treated with oral or inhaled steroids, and drugs such as theophylline and cromoglycates. Higher-dose steroids with long-acting beta agonists inhalers are used for exacerbations of more severe disease.

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soundoff (30 Responses)
  1. Barb

    You can develop asthma from being hypothyroid. For me, just a small increase in my thyroid medication cleared the asthma completely. A TSH test often does not tell you if your thyroid is the problem. More info here: tiredthyroid.com/asthma.html

    September 8, 2011 at 11:53 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. john

    Samter's triad type asthma ( aspirin sensitive type asthma ) I believe ( not an M.D. but have asthma ) typically develops in adulthoold.

    September 8, 2011 at 12:28 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ivana

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      September 14, 2012 at 01:06 | Report abuse |
  3. Chuck

    I developed Asma after age 50

    September 8, 2011 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. OvernOut

    My husband was 50 when he developed asthma. Life-long non-smoker, too. There are plenty of life-long non-smokers with lung problems, way too much "blame the patient" out there. Our 18-year-old has asthma, so when my husband started wheezing like she does on a very cold winter day, I sent him to the doctor. The 18-year-old is able to control her asthma, my husband's is getting progressively worse.

    September 8, 2011 at 13:16 | Report abuse | Reply
    • zendaya

      i developed astma when i was 11 and it was hard for me to mange because i was a dancer so i told my doctor and he gave me an inhaler and a breathing treatment

      July 17, 2014 at 14:23 | Report abuse |
  5. Bill

    I am 67 and have had asthma for about 10 years. Nothing seemed to prevent an attack-the frequency was increasing about 5 years ago to almost every 6 weeks. I was then put on XOLAIR and have not had an attack in 4 years. This drug controls a protein, IGE, which can be part of the trigger for an attack.
    XOLAIR has worked exceptionally well for me.

    September 8, 2011 at 13:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. IronCelt

    I showed up with mild asthma at age 49. Doctor ruled out lots of problems and the likely culprit is that my home address might as well be the House of Mold & Fungus.

    September 8, 2011 at 16:27 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Kat Fud

    I developed asthma due to black mold in an apartment. It took about 10 months after I moved in before I started having symptoms. Since i had never experienced an asthma attack before I just thought I was out of shape. My doctor diagnosed it and chided me for not having an inhaler handy, but because I had never before had asthma, I was totally unprepared.

    Every time I cleaned up the black mold I'd get an asthma attack, as well as when I failed to air out the apartment for a few days, like when it rained and I didn't want to open windows. The attacks got worse the more I tried to get rid of the mold. I even wore masks and gloves, but cleaning it still triggered an attack.

    I moved out of that apartment, and all asthma symptoms have since disappeared. I feel very sorry for whoever moves in next. I told the property management, but they don't give a #)#$*.

    September 23, 2011 at 14:59 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Ruth

      can you please give me property information? which by the way are public records, so that i may post complaint with the proper government agencies. this should not go on , or happen to anyone else. why should they continue receiving funds for that unit? please do not allow for them to continue using humans as an object. Ruth.

      April 24, 2012 at 01:34 | Report abuse |
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    November 23, 2011 at 20:19 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Richard Friedel

    Asthma ranks among the most common chronic conditions in the United States, affecting an estimated 14.9 million persons in 1995 and causing over 1.5 million emergency department visits, about 500,000 hospitalizations, and over 5,500 deaths.
    This should call attention to inspiratory muscle training to open the lungs naturally. The training-detraining aspect is shown to be the key to asthma and COPD. Training with one of the many successful devices on the market effectively combats breathlessness, taking pharmaceuticals detrains because of the relaxing effect. This association between drug use and the asthma epidemic is all too obvious. Try using a device with some sort of suction calibration to check weekly progress in making muscles more powerful and effective. A similar but not better effect may be obtained by taking a 2 x 6 cms strip of PE blister foil, pressing it flat (bursting some of the blisters) and rolling it up. When held in the mouth instead of the mouthpiece of one of the known devices a certain degree of relief from chronic breathlessness (comparable with alternate nostril breathing) may be attained. The roll is squeezed at the start of an inhale and then relaxed so that, as a result, the rest of the inhale is relaxed and effective. Such obviously extremely affordable rolls of suitable foil could then be sold in pharmacies. Richard Friedel

    December 22, 2011 at 07:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. annyomous

    Yes, it's possible to develop it later. The longer you're exposed to an irritant, the more likely you'll develop an adverse effect to it. Not counting allergy desensitization of course.

    Also it's possible to go undiagnosed for years, which was the reason I wasn't diagnosed with asthma until middle school.

    And then there's the possibility of your asthma returning after it going away.

    Also I think it's worth mentioning that many people with asthma have multiple triggers. That can include both exercise and allergies or other sensitivities.

    Anyways I hope you get your breathing problems under control. It's very scary not being able to breathe.

    January 18, 2012 at 16:56 | Report abuse | Reply
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  13. Angelo

    What is the cause of his asthma? Is there a dcfeet in his lungs, or is it from Allergies? If there is a physical manifestation, then I would have to say, you really don't have a choice, but you can study up on the meds and try to find the ones that fit him better.If it's allergens get an allergy test, find out what he is allergic to, then do your best to get rid of what is ailing his lungs and breathing. You can buy an air purifier, and take a natural supplement called Quercetin, which is $ 7 online. It is a powerful antioxidant, antihistamine and anti inflammatory. They recommend no more than 1500 mg a day, spread the doses out across the day.Once the allergy test comes back, if that is it, then you can have a serum made up to be given to your husband. My son took shots for two years, and we got rid of most if not all of his allergies. He had damaged lungs, so cold air was hard on him. But, now he is doing fine, at 22.The bottom line with asthma, triggered by allergies, is to keep fresh clean air in your home, no smoking around him, and keeping the dust/animal dander down to a minimum. Vaccuum daily, wipe things down constantly, clean off ceiling fans.Wash sheets, curtains, stuffed animals- weekly. You will be surprised at the difference it makes. Hard wood floors or tile are also better than carpet. It's a lot of work, but well worth it. But, please, talk to the doctor!

    August 2, 2012 at 00:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Bri

    In the past three weeks I have started having asthma symptoms including difficulty breathing, coughing, wheezing, and chest tightness. I'm a 19yo female that smokes. I recently started up smoking again (about 2 months ago) but I've never had a problem with this before. Is it just my lungs getting used to smoking again or is it asthma? I have allergies but they're all mild and the attacks come when I'm not near any allergens

    October 19, 2013 at 12:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. Audry

    I never been diagnosed with asthma. But I was curious if smoking cigarets or anything can lead you to getting asthma?

    July 10, 2014 at 03:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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    hi im jenna and i got asthma when i was 13 but now im 24 i got asthma when i was sucking my boyfriends penuis and it had powerd on it so the powder got in my lungs and i got asthma

    July 20, 2014 at 23:45 | Report abuse | Reply
    • lenna

      what is wrong with u young lady

      July 20, 2014 at 23:48 | Report abuse |
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  20. Susan

    I climbed a steep hill and could feel my chest breathing so hard. I developed a chest infection for six weeks and after rounds of antibiotics and a steroid I'm still wheezing. Did I ruin my airways that day? How long til I'm well? I've never had allergies or asthma ever! I'm 57.
    Other things the wheezing can b from?

    June 27, 2016 at 12:30 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. lily white

    Hey all!

    I am a long time sufferer of that darned asthma.My whole life i had the excuse "I can't because i have asthma.." I gained weight because i couldn't run or work out long, I couldn't have cats or go for many outdoor walks. I wish I would have discovered magnesium deficiency as the reason for my asthma getting worse a long time ago! But I am grateful now that I am almost cleared of my asthma. Thanks to dr.carolyn dean, I was able to give my body what it needed- MAGNESIUM. Not just any magnesium, it has to be pico-ionic. which is small enough to absorb into the cell with no laxative effect. Here is the article i read that got me started and i think it will help you too! Heal your Bronchial tubes: http://bit.ly/2hSPLMe
    Happy breathing!

    December 19, 2016 at 17:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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