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Asthma when you’re older

Here we look at ways to stay well with your asthma as you get older

Find out what you and your GP can do to help you stay well with your asthma in later life, and how to manage any extra challenges. 

On this page:

How is asthma different when you’re older?

Managing your asthma well in later life

Other ways to stay well in later life

How is asthma different when you’re older?

You may notice new challenges with your asthma as you get older. For example:

  • Symptoms may feel harder to control
  • It can take longer to recover from an asthma attack or get over colds and flu
  • Side effects from asthma medicines can be more noticeable
  • Other conditions alongside asthma are more common.

Some of these challenges are to do with natural ageing. As we get older, our lungs are less strong, and our immune system can take longer to fight off infection.

“The good news is, there are plenty of ways to manage these changes, with your GP’s support,” says Dr Andy Whittamore, Asthma UK’s in-house GP. “And positive things you can do to keep your body and mind healthy in later life.”

Diagnosed with asthma later in life?

Asthma diagnosed later in life is known as late-onset asthma. This kind of asthma is more common in women, often starting around the menopause.

Symptoms sometimes start after a viral infection. “Some people may have needed steroid tablets or an inhaler for chest symptoms a while before they were given a diagnosis,” says Dr Andy.

Late-onset asthma is often harder to control with the usual asthma medicines. Your GP will need to consider add on treatments, like LTRAs (leukotriene receptor antagonists), or long acting bronchodilators, for extra support.

“It’s not uncommon for late-onset asthma to go undiagnosed or to be misdiagnosed as another condition, like a chest infection or heart disease,” says Dr Andy.  

Childhood asthma come back?

Sometimes childhood asthma comes back in later life, after a long period of no symptoms. This can sometimes be due to causes at work (occupational asthma).

It’s important for you and your GP to know if your asthma symptoms are coming back, rather than starting for the first time (late-onset asthma). This is because they are different types of asthma. Childhood asthma can be more allergic, for example, and late-onset asthma can be harder to control.

“Perhaps you don’t remember having asthma as a child, but you may remember being chesty or coughing a lot when you were young,” says Dr Andy.

Get more information about diagnosing asthma in adults

Managing your asthma well in later life

Continue to have regular asthma reviews

Whether you’ve had asthma all your life or you’ve been diagnosed with it as an older adult, an asthma review helps you stay on top of any changes in your symptoms.

You can make sure your asthma action plan is up to date, review your asthma medicines, and check you’re taking the lowest dose possible to stay well and avoid side effects. 

Track your symptoms

Keeping track of your symptoms makes it easier to spot any changes. Write down your symptoms in a diary, notebook, or on your phone and take it along to your next appointment.

Remember to make a note of anything you were doing that day or any triggers you came across - you may notice you’re sensitive to new things that were not a problem before.

“Don’t ignore symptoms like breathlessness,” says Dr Andy.  “It’s easy to think that feeling a bit more breathless is just another sign that you’re not as fit as you used to be.

“But if you’re feeling out of breath climbing stairs or walking uphill, see your GP to get it checked out. Breathlessness can be a sign that your asthma is not well controlled. It could also be a sign of another health condition.”

Act quickly if symptoms get worse

To cut your risk of an asthma attack, take action as soon as you notice symptoms getting worse.  As we get older, asthma attacks can be more severe and take longer to recover from.

Talk through your asthma action plan with your GP or asthma nurse so you know exactly what you need to do and who you need to call when symptoms flare up.

Check your inhaler technique

It’s good for everyone to check up on their inhaler technique regularly. Take a look at our inhaler videos and ask your GP or asthma nurse to check how well you’re using your inhalers.

If you’re finding it harder to take your inhalers, perhaps due to a condition like arthritis, ask if there’s a different device that might be easier for you.

Ask about side effects

Side effects, like palpitations or feeling shaky after using your reliever inhaler, can feel worse as you get older.

Taking long-term oral steroids (prednisolone tablets) or high doses of inhaled steroids can increase the risk of developing cataracts, osteoporosis, or thinner skin that bruises easily. However, not everyone will experience these side effects.

“It’s important to keep taking your asthma medicines,” says Dr Andy, “but talk to your GP or asthma nurse as soon as possible if you’re worried about any side effects. There are simple things they can help you with, like checking your inhaler technique, or looking at alternative treatments such as LTRAs.”

Get help for other conditions too

It’s common to have more than one long-term condition to deal with as you get older.

Some of these conditions may have symptoms that overlap. For example, many of the symptoms of asthma are like those of chronic bronchitis or emphysema, which are types of COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease). 

Some other conditions like obstructive sleep apnoea and acid reflux can also make asthma symptoms worse.

And some drugs for other conditions may affect how well your asthma medicines work, or cause tightening in your airways.

“Speak with your GP or pharmacist if you’re concerned that any of your medicines are affecting your asthma, or if you think any of your asthma medicines are making you unwell,” says Dr Andy.”

Find out more about other conditions

Measure your peak flow

Your GP can check how well you can fill your lungs with air, and how well you can breathe out again, using a peak flow test.

You can continue to measure your peak flow at home, using a peak flow diary. Some people find this a helpful way to monitor their asthma.

Avoid colds and flu

Ask your GP or asthma nurse for a yearly flu vaccine  and/or a one-off pneumococcal vaccine to protect against pneumonia.

You can lower your risk of getting a cold or other respiratory infection by washing your hands and staying away from friends or family who have colds.

Other ways to stay well in later life

Stay active

Studies have shown that people who keep exercising have more chance of staying healthy as they get older.

Even if your mobility isn’t as good as it was or you find you get tired easily, there will be an activity you can do.

Keep to a healthy weight

Keeping to a healthy weight can lower your risk of asthma symptoms. Studies show that if you’re very overweight, even losing a bit of weight, can make a difference to your asthma. 

It can feel harder to shift the weight as you get older, particularly if you’re less active than you were. Find out what support you can get.

Stop smoking

If you smoke, you’re more at risk from asthma symptoms and attacks, as well as COPD.

Giving up smoking not only lowers your risk, but it also means your medicines will be more effective.

There’s lots of free support to help you quit. 

Look after your mental health

If you’re worried, down, or lonely, talk to someone about how you feel. Age UK  has an Advice Line: 0800 169 2081.

Stress, anxiety and depression can all trigger asthma symptoms. 

“We all need a support network of friends, family and neighbours,” says Dr Andy. “Share your asthma action plan, so that anyone caring for you knows what to do if symptoms get worse and who to call for help. And tell your GP or asthma nurse how you’re feeling too.

You can talk to a respiratory nurse specialist on our Helpline: 0300 222 5800 (9am - 5pm; Mon - Fri). Or you can WhatsApp them on 07378 606 728

 

Last reviewed December 2020

Next review due December 2023

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