Could your chest cold be a sign of asthma?

When you think about asthma, what comes to mind? Maybe it’s an image of your child coughing after exposure to pollen, or maybe it’s a kid running around on the soccer field that starts wheezing. We usually do not think of adults as having asthma, and for good reason — adult-onset asthma does not usually present with the same symptoms as it does with childhood asthma.

We have all had a chest cold that seems to take forever to go away. Congestion, a runny nose and a cough hang around for weeks, or sometimes even months. A trip to the doctor can provide symptom relief but does not address the underlying problem.

When you get a repeat cold several times a year with less and less time between episodes, it may be time to consider a different diagnosis: asthma.

Sometimes it can be difficult to diagnose adult asthma. You may be perfectly well when you see the doctor, with a normal chest exam and normal lung function. However, it can sometimes take several weeks for you to get an appointment, so making sure that you keep track of your symptoms is important. Noting where, when and how long the symptoms occur can help your doctor come to an accurate diagnosis.

What are the triggers?

There is a whole laundry list of things that may cause asthma. Do you have a new pet? Do you have a new job that is exposing you to chemicals or irritants? Are you on a new medicine? These triggers may not be present at your doctor’s exam, so writing down what changes have occurred recently in your life can help your doctor figure out this is bronchitis, a seasonal allergy, or truly adult asthma.

The difficulty in diagnosing asthma in adults has sometimes led to misdiagnoses. The numbers vary depending on the population served, but around 10 percent of patients who are said to have asthma could never be documented as actually having the disease. Although the medications for treatment of asthma have minimal side effects, the cost of the treatment is considerable. The average inhaler can cost a few hundred dollars without insurance.

Your persistent cough may be more than just this year’s bug — it may be asthma. Comprehensive testing is required to make an accurate diagnosis, including spirometry, peak flow, methacholine challenges and exhale nitric oxide tests.

If you are suffering from a chest cold that just won’t go away, it may be asthma. Find a pulmonologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Health that is right for you. 

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About the author

Dr. Mark Millard
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Mark Millard, MD, is a pulmonologist and medical director at the Martha Foster Lung Care Center. Dr. Millard developed the "Rules of Two®" to help determine if your asthma is under control. Get to know Dr. Millard.

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Could your chest cold be a sign of asthma?