The One Thing You Should Never, Ever Do if You Have Asthma and You're Over 50

With asthma attacks feeling like “an elephant on your chest” or “being trapped under a heavy piece of furniture,” asthma is nothing short of a nightmare. Wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing are only a few symptoms that would be nice to avoid as much as possible.

Unfortunately, asthma triggers are out of your control, to some degree. Asthma is a chronic condition that can flare up if you come into contact with various common triggers (that may surprise you!) such as acid reflux, aspirin and strong emotions. Plus, as you get older, your lungs and immune system become weaker, and asthma symptoms can feel harder to control.

Related: The #1 Thing That Can Help if You’re Having an Asthma Attack and Don’t Have Your Inhaler, According to Doctors

That doesn’t mean you’re completely powerless, though. A pulmonologist says there’s one main thing you should completely avoid if you have asthma and are over 50 years old—and it is in your control. It’s something 14.9 percent of people between 45 and 64 years old and 8.3 percent of people 65 and older reported doing “every day” or “some days.”

The Main Habit to Avoid if You’re 50+ and Have Asthma

This thing to avoid probably won’t surprise you, but it’s a truth worth repeating. “The worst thing people can do for their breathing is smoke, whether or not they have asthma,” says Dr. May-Lin Wilgus, MD, a pulmonologist and assistant clinical professor at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA. The harms of asthmatic people smoking are documented in research.

Cigarettes can mess with your breathing and lung function in many scary (and sometimes permanent) ways. “Cigarette smoke irritates the airways and can worsen asthma symptoms, cause asthma attacks and lead to progressive loss of lung function, ultimately resulting in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD),” Dr. Wilgus explains. “Cigarette smoking also makes airways more sensitive to allergens and renders inhalers less effective at treating asthma.”

Cigarettes aren’t the only smoking device to avoid, either. Dr. Wilgus adds that smoking cannabis and vaping can also worsen asthma control, saying that avoiding those kinds of smoking “is critical to maintaining lung health." Further, not vaping or smoking can lower your heart attack risk and coronary calcification risk.

Related: ‘I’m a Pulmonologist, and This Is the Daily Habit I Swear By for Lung Health’

If you struggle with a smoking addiction of some sort and want to stop, research-backed avenues exist. Some helpful strategies include inpatient nicotine replacement therapy, counseling and more personalized approaches, according to a study in the Journal of Asthma and Allergy.

Healthy Habits For People With Asthma

Smoking is one of several asthma exacerbations, but people have their own individual triggers. “Aside from not smoking, people with asthma should be aware to avoid their individual asthma triggers, which differ from person to person,” Dr. Wilgus says. She lists dust, pollen, pet dander, secondhand smoke, air pollution and viral respiratory infections as common examples.

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Unfortunately, you can’t avoid those triggers—especially viral infections—100 percent of the time. People who care for school-age children or grandchildren, especially, are even more susceptible to colds that trigger asthma exacerbations, according to Dr. Wilgus.

So, do what you can do to prevent how often you get sick. Dr. Wilgus recommends keeping your distance from people who are sick, washing your hands frequently and not touching your face. “Work with your doctor to set up an action plan to manage your asthma proactively if you do get a cold,” she adds.

But again, avoiding smoking is this pulmonologist’s (and others’) main advice. If you struggle to quit, as many do, remember you’re not alone. Many resources are available to help you quit.

Next up: Everything You Need to Know About Asthma, from the Symptoms of Asthma to What Treatment Options Look Like