The Differences Between Asthma in Children and Adults

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Asthma is a chronic condition that affects more than 25 million adults and children in the United States. Asthma obstructs or constricts the bronchial tubes, which are the airways that bring air in and out of the lungs, making it hard to breathe. Cases can be mild, severe, or anywhere in between.

Asthma can develop in childhood and persist into adulthood, or it can develop during adulthood—a condition called adult-onset asthma. It’s actually the same disease—but it can behave a little differently and warrant different management strategies depending on your age.

What Triggers Asthma?

Similarities Between Childhood and Adult Asthma

Children and adults with asthma experience many of the same symptoms, including:

Many people also report feeling anxious or panicked when their airways become constricted or inflamed, making it hard to breathe.
Children and adults also have many of the same triggers that can cause a flare-up of asthma, such as:

  • Smoke

  • Pollen

  • Dust

  • Mold or mildew

  • Pet dander

  • Cold temperatures

  • Respiratory infections

  • Cockroaches

  • Exercise

Another thing that childhood asthma and adult-onset asthma have in common: it’s not always immediately recognized as asthma.
It can be a little tricky to identify symptoms of asthma in children. Babies and very young children have very small bronchial tubes, and a cold or flu can inflame those tiny bronchial tubes and irritate them. But if symptoms linger or recur often, that’s a signal it could be asthma, especially if there’s a family history of allergies or asthma.

Meanwhile, people who develop adult-onset asthma may just write off their symptoms as allergies, or a persistent, annoying cold that they just can’t kick. They don’t even realize that it’s possible to develop asthma as an adult.

Differences Between Childhood and Adult Asthma

Perhaps the biggest difference between children and adults with asthma is how often they experience symptoms.

Many children experience intermittent, episodic symptoms as a response to an upper respiratory infection or other trigger. That is, they may wheeze or cough sporadically after having a cold or being exposed to an allergen like dust or pollen. Sometimes their only symptom is just a lingering cough. Compared to adults, asthmatic children are also more likely to have allergic skin manifestations (atopic dermatitis) and food allergies.

Meanwhile, adults—especially those who developed asthma as adults—may experience more persistent ongoing symptoms, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.  And they might need daily medications to control their symptoms.

It’s important for adults and children to be correctly diagnosed and stick to a proper course of treatment. But the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology emphasizes that it’s especially crucial to control symptoms in children. Asthma can cause damage to a child’s growing lungs, setting him up to have more serious struggles with asthma as he ages. Meanwhile, adults with severe asthma who aren’t able to properly control their asthma are more likely to experience a decline in lung function as they age.

No matter your age, if you’re experiencing symptoms of asthma, talk to your doctor. If it is indeed asthma, he or she can find the right treatment plan for you.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Dec 18

  1. Adult Onset of Asthma. Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. http://asthmaandallergies.org/asthma-allergies/adult-onset-asthma/

  2. Amelink M, de Nijs SB, de Groot JC, et al. Three Phenotypes of Adult-Onset Asthma. Allergy. 2013;68(5):674-80. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23590217

  3. Asthma in Adults. University of Maryland Medical Center. http://www.umm.edu/health/medical/reports/articles/asthma-in-adults

  4. Asthma in Children. American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. http://acaai.org/asthma/who-has-asthma/children

  5. Childhood Asthma. American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. https://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/library/at-a-glance/childhood-asthma

  6. Childhood Asthma. Mayo Clinic. http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/childhood-asthma/basics/definition/con-20028628

  7. Gelfand EW. Asthma in Childhood Different from Asthma in Adults? Why Do We Need Special Approaches to Asthma in Children? Allergy and Asthma Proceedings. 2008;29(2):99-102.

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