Navigating Asthma in Older Adults

Asthma is a disease of the lung airways. With asthma, the airways are inflamed (swollen) and react easily to certain things, like viruses, smoke, or pollen. When the inflamed airways react, they get narrow and make it hard to breathe.

Common asthma symptoms are wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. When these symptoms get worse, it's an asthma attack. Asthma symptoms may come and go, but the asthma is always there. To keep it under control, you need to work with your healthcare provider and keep taking care of it.

senior man with basketball

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Asthma and Aging

Many older adults have asthma. Some people develop it late in life. For others, it may be a continuing problem from younger years. The cause is unknown.

Asthma in older adults presents some special concerns. For example, the normal effects of aging can make asthma harder to diagnose and treat.

Also, older adults are more likely than younger people to have side effects from asthma medicines. For example, recent studies show that older adults who take high doses of inhaled steroid medicines over a long time may increase their chance of getting glaucoma.

When some asthma and non-asthma medicines are taken by the same person, the drugs can combine to produce harmful side effects. Healthcare providers and patients must take special care to watch out for and address these concerns through a complete diagnosis and regular check-ups.

Controlling Your Asthma

You can help get your asthma under control and keep it under control if you do a few simple things:

  • Talk openly with your healthcare provider. Say what you want to be able to do that you can't do now because of your asthma. Also, tell your practitioner your concerns about your asthma, your medicine, and your health.
  • If you take medicine that you must inhale, be sure that you are doing it right. It must be timed with taking your breath in. And such common problems as arthritis or loss of strength may make it more difficult. Your healthcare provider should check that you are doing it right and help you solve any problems.
  • It's also important to talk to your practitioner about all the medicines you take—for asthma and for other issues—to be sure they will not cause harmful side effects. Be sure to mention eye drops, aspirin, and other medicines you take without a prescription. Also, tell your healthcare provider about any symptoms you have, even if you don't think they are related to asthma. Being open with your practitioner about your medicines and symptoms can help prevent problems.
  • Be honest about any problems you may have hearing, understanding, or remembering things your practitioner tells you. Ask your healthcare provider to speak up or repeat something until you're sure of what you need to do.
  • Ask your healthcare provider for a written treatment plan. Then be sure to follow it. A written treatment plan will tell you when to take each of your asthma medicines and how much to take. If you have trouble reading small print, ask for your treatment plan (and other handouts) in larger type.
  • Watch for early symptoms and respond quickly. Most asthma attacks start slowly. You can learn to tell when one is coming if you keep track of the symptoms you have, how bad they are, and when you have them. Your practitioner also may want you to use a "peak flow meter," which is a small plastic tool that you blow into that measures how well you are breathing. If you respond quickly to the first signs that your asthma is getting worse, you can prevent serious asthma attacks.
  • Stay away from things that make your asthma worse. Tobacco smoke and viruses can make asthma worse. So can other things you breathe in, such as pollen. Talk to your healthcare provider about what makes your asthma worse and what to do about those things. Ask about getting a flu shot and a vaccine to prevent pneumonia.
  • See your healthcare provider at least every six months. You may need to go more often, especially if your asthma is not under control. Regular visits will let your practitioner check your progress and, if needed, change your treatment plan. Your healthcare provider can also check other medical problems you may have. Bring your treatment plan and all your medicines to every check-up. Show your practitioner how you take your inhaled medicines to make sure you're doing it right.

Asthma should not limit your enjoyment of life, no matter what your age. When you work with your healthcare provider, your asthma can be controlled so that you can do the things you enjoy.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Gillman A, Douglass JA. Asthma in the elderly. Asia Pac Allergy. 2012;2(2):101–108. doi:10.5415/apallergy.2012.2.2.101

  2. Phulke S, Kaushik S, Kaur S, Pandav SS. Steroid-induced glaucoma: An avoidable irreversible blindness. J Curr Glaucoma Pract. 2017;11(2):67–72. doi:10.5005/jp-journals-l0028-1226

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Common asthma triggers.

By Marian Anne Eure
Marian Eure, RN, is a registered nurse with more than 25 years of experience in adult health care, health promotion, and health education.