Differences Between Childhood and Adult-Onset Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung disorder that causes swelling and inflammation in the lungs. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, asthma affects more than 25 million people in the United States, or about 8 percent of the population. Seven million of them are children.

Asthma is common in childhood, but you can develop it at any point in your life. It’s not uncommon for people over the age of 50 to be diagnosed with this lung disorder.

Childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma have the same symptoms, and both have similar treatments. However, children with asthma face different challenges.

Many cases of adult-onset asthma are triggered by allergies. Allergens are substances that can cause an immune reaction in people who are sensitive to them.

Children with allergies may not experience asthma from exposure to allergens when they are younger. Yet over time, their bodies can change and react differently. This can lead to adult-onset asthma.

According to the American Lung Association, of the estimated 7 million children in the United States with asthma, more than 4 million experience an asthma attack each year. Asthma is the third leading cause of hospitalizations of American children age 15 and younger. Fortunately, asthma-related deaths in children are quite rare.

Symptoms of childhood and adult-onset asthma

Asthma causes inflammation and narrowing in the airways. Narrowed airways cause chest tightness and difficulty breathing. Symptoms of childhood and adult-onset asthma are the same and include:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • congestion
  • chest pain
  • increased mucus secretion in the airways
  • pressure in the chest
  • shortness of breath after physical activity
  • difficulty sleeping
  • delayed recovery from a respiratory infection, such as a flu or cold

If you suspect your child’s symptoms are the result of asthma, make an appointment with their doctor. Untreated childhood asthma may have lasting impacts.

For example, children with untreated asthma may have increased shortness of breath during exercise, which may discourage them from being physically active.

People with asthma can and should be active, and many athletes with asthma are able to have successful careers.

What do the two types have in common?

Exact causes of asthma can be difficult to pinpoint. Allergies and triggers in the environment can cause asthma symptoms and an asthma flare-up, and genetics can also play a role. But the exact reasons why people develop asthma remain unclear.

Childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma share many of the same triggers. For all people with asthma, exposure to one of the following triggers may cause an asthma attack, though different people have different triggers:

  • smoke
  • mold and mildew
  • air pollution
  • feather bedding
  • dust mites
  • cockroaches
  • animal dander or saliva
  • respiratory infections or colds
  • cold temperatures
  • dry air
  • emotional stress or excitement
  • exercise

What are the differences?


Children diagnosed with asthma are more likely to have intermittent symptoms, though some children have daily symptoms. Allergens can set off an asthma attack. Children are typically more sensitive to allergens and more prone to an asthma attack because their bodies are still developing.

Children diagnosed with asthma may find that their asthma symptoms almost completely disappear or are less severe during puberty, but they may recur later in life.

The American Lung Association also states that secondhand smoke is particularly dangerous for children. An estimated 400,000 to 1 million children with asthma have their condition worsened by secondhand smoke.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) state that children with asthma are more likely to have routine office, emergency, and urgent care visits than adults with asthma.


With adults, symptoms are typically persistent. Daily treatment is often required in order to keep asthma symptoms and flare-ups under control. According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, at least 30 percent of adult asthma cases are triggered by allergies.

Among adults who develop asthma, women are more likely than men to develop it after age 20, and obesity increases the risk of developing it.

Death resulting from an asthma attack is rare and mainly occurs in adults over the age of 65, according to the CDC.

Treatments and prevention

There are quick-relief and long-term control medications for both children and adults with asthma. Quick-relief medications are designed to ease symptoms caused by an asthma attack or flare-up. Long-term control medications are designed to ease inflammation and swelling for longer periods of time in order to prevent both an asthma attack and the long-term airway damage caused by uncontrolled asthma.

Long-term control medications are typically taken daily for months, or even years. Most children and adults with asthma use a combination of these medicines to treat their asthma.

Create an asthma action plan

Both adults and children need to create an asthma action plan to outline what type of medicine they should take and when. It will also provide details for what to do when a person’s asthma is dangerously out of control. These instructions will help you, your child, friends and relatives know when it’s time to change treatments or seek emergency care.

To make this plan, discuss your treatment options with your doctor. Plan what you should do in the event of an asthma flare-up. Define at what point you need to increase treatment measures to prevent or reduce an attack.

List what triggers can be avoided and the best ways to avoid them. Share this plan with friends, relatives, and any caregivers your children may have. Together, you will be able to successfully treat your or your child’s asthma and avoid future complications.


Asthma is a common disorder among both children and adults. Although it can lead to difficulty breathing, with proper planning and preparation it is possible to control and prevent frequent asthma attacks.

There are many medications available for both short- and long-term care. It’s useful to create a plan detailing how to prevent an attack and when to seek emergency care. Share your plan with friends, relatives, and caregivers.

Many people, including athletes, live with asthma and lead healthy lives.

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