What Seniors Should Know About Asthma and Allergies

No matter your age, nothing is more frustrating – and at times, more frightening – than having trouble breathing. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than two million people in the U.S. age 65 and older battle with asthma.

Asthma is a disease that is characterized by obstructions of the airways and is often debilitating, especially among older patients. It is caused by a constriction of the muscles around the airway, as well as inflammation and increased mucus, making it difficult to breathe. Flare-ups are often triggered by a respiratory infection or virus, allergens in the air, or pollution.

While most asthma patients first experience symptoms when they’re younger, it can develop at any age, and it is not uncommon for people in their 70s or 80s to develop symptoms for the first time. Among older adults, the symptoms are more likely to be a persistent cough and the production of sputum from the lungs. That means it’s sometimes misdiagnosed at first as chronic bronchitis, congestive heart failure, or emphysema, which are illnesses that often occur in older patients.

For seniors, asthma typically doesn’t go into remission as it often does in younger patients, but there are effective treatments. The most commonly prescribed of these is an inhaler that delivers anti-inflammatory drugs directly into the airways. It’s important to be aware, however, that because many seniors take multiple prescriptions, the risk of a reaction with the asthma medication should be monitored.

If you do have asthma, there are steps you can take to minimize the number of flare-ups, which include getting rid of common triggers like dust mites, mold and mildew, and pet dander by following this simple checklist.

Although it’s less serious than asthma, another condition that often affects seniors’ breathing is allergies, especially those that are triggered by airborne allergens. The most common of these include pollen, mold spores, dust mite waste and pet dander. During an allergic reaction, your immune system responds to a foreign substance that doesn’t pose a threat to your body. Normally, your immune system adjusts to your environment, but with allergies, fairly harmless substances, like pollen, are perceived as an outside invader. So, the immune system attacks it, resulting in inflammation, sneezing and other symptoms. For many people, seasonal allergies, known as “hay fever,” cause itchy and watery eyes, a runny nose, coughing, and sneezing.

Scientists haven’t figured out why harmless allergens can trigger a reaction. Heredity plays a part, but only a general susceptibility is genetic. Specific allergies, such as being allergic to cat dander, cannot be inherited.

If allergies become severe, your doctor may refer you to an allergist for testing. One of the more common testing procedures is a skin test, during which your skin is pricked or scratched with small needles, each containing a different allergen. If the skin reacts by becoming red, itchy or swollen, it means you’re allergic to that substance.

For the most part, treating allergies is a matter of managing the symptoms, although some patients get positive results with immunotherapy for allergies – also known as allergy shots – something you may want to discuss with your doctor. Symptoms can also be managed with medications, including decongestants, antihistamines, and corticosteroids.

Also, remember, while allergies by themselves are not all that dangerous, they can lead to other more severe illnesses, such as bronchitis or even pneumonia, especially among the elderly. So if you feel allergy symptoms coming on, see your doctor for an examination.

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