In 2010, Heide Leighty developed a cough that, despite repeated trips to the doctor and several treatments, wouldn’t go away.
“I couldn’t get rid of it. I couldn’t shake it,” says Leighty, 43, an avid tennis player who lives in Houston, Texas.
She also began experiencing episodes of breathlessness and, finally, a pulmonologist diagnosed her with asthma and prescribed steroids. Two days later, she was feeling—and breathing—much better.
While often viewed as a childhood diagnosis, asthma can develop during adulthood as well. However, adults frequently dismiss a persistent cough or other symptoms such as wheezing or shortness of breath as simply related to allergies or the lingering effects of a recent cold.
Allergies trigger at least 30 percent of adult asthma cases, according to estimates by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Sustained exposure to certain substances in the workplace or the environment also can contribute.
How can you tell the difference between a cold or allergies and asthma?
Watch for symptoms such as a chronic cough or frequent bouts of bronchitis during the winter.
“At some point, it crosses a threshold where it might be worth some investigating,” says Dr. David Beuther, a pulmonologist with National Jewish Health, a respiratory hospital in Denver, Colo.
Your doctor may recommend a lung function test, which measures how much air you can exhale, and how fast, through a device called a spirometer. That will help pinpoint the best course of treatment based on the severity of your case.
And take heart—you don’t have to give up exercising. Dr. Andy Nish, spokesman for the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, recommends that newly diagnosed patients use a bronchodilator, a drug that causes widening of the bronchi, before exercising.
“If they have been exercising with no symptoms at all or, over time, note that they do fine without using their bronchodilator pre-exercise, then they may not need to,” he says.
Though there’s no foolproof way to avoid adult-onset asthma, here are a few ways to reduce your risk:
Stop smoking. “The No. 1 (trigger) would certainly be smoking,” says Beuther, who also recommends avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke.
Get a flu shot. Viral infections often trigger asthma, but there’s not a lot you can do about them. A flu vaccination will ward off at least one cough-and-wheeze-inducing virus per season.
Reduce your exposure to allergens. Nish suggests placing dust-mite covers on your pillows and mattress if you’re allergic to dust mites, or keeping furry pets out of the bedroom if you have a dander allergy.
Watch your weight. “Obesity is a significant risk factor for asthma in adults,” Beuther says.