Asthma In Women: How Is It Different?
The most recent statistics on asthma (2015) revealed that close to 26 million people in the U.S. have asthma, with those numbers growing significantly every year. Of those totals, nearly 2/3 of the sufferers were women. Did you know that asthma is more prevalent in women across the lifespan? Studies show that there are other differences in asthma-related to gender too. This post takes a look at how asthma in women is different.
Some general facts
Besides the fact that asthma is more common in women, studies have also shown that:
- It is more severe in women
- Women have flare-ups (also known as exacerbations) more often
- Hospitalization occurs more often in women who have asthma
- Death is more likely in women asthmatics
Experts are not sure why these gender differences exist, but they do have some theories on possible factors, which research appears to support.
Differences during childhood & young adult years
It is interesting to note that in children who have not yet entered puberty, asthma is actually more common and more severe in boys than in girls. But once puberty begins, which is associated with a rise in sex hormones, there can be what has been labeled a "gender switch." This is thought to occur somewhere between the ages of 11 and 18. At that point, asthma is more common and severe in girls than in boys.
There are also a couple of other differences:
- Women are more likely to have persistent wheezing
- Asthma tends to improve as men get older, while women often see it get worse as they get older
In addition, studies suggest that women who begin menstruating earlier than usual may have twice the risk of developing asthma. Plus, asthma prevalence seems to increase with each additional baby that a woman has. This could be because girls who mature early and women who have been pregnant multiple times may have been exposed more to higher estrogen levels.
On the other hand, birth control pills appear to offer some protection from asthma in women who take them, and may also reduce asthma flare-ups.
Some studies and reports have also found that asthma symptoms can worsen during a menstrual period. This appears to be the case in about one-third of women with asthma who menstruate.
Asthma during middle age
Research is not in total agreement, but it does appear that menopause may offer some relief in asthma symptoms for women. Results may be mixed because of other factors at this stage of life, which can include obesity, age, and other health conditions.
But we do know that the risk that asthma will get more severe increases in men over the age of 45, while it does not in women. In fact, asthma severity seems to drop between the ages of 50 and 65 in women. Could this be because sex hormone levels drop with menopause?
That theory appears to be supported by the fact that in women who are at a healthy weight and that are not smokers, but who are given hormone replacement therapy, asthma severity often increases. But there could be other factors at play as well, so results are not totally conclusive.
Women may perceive their asthma differently
Overall, women report a worse quality of life when they have asthma. In addition, as compared to men with asthma, they have:
- More shortness of breath
- More depression
- Greater use of rescue inhalers
- More limitations on their physical functioning
One study even showed that women have:
- A higher rate of anxiety
- Excessive daytime sleepiness
- More insomnia
Differences in lifestyle and asthma control
I find it fascinating that people with asthma are slightly more likely (44.9%) to own a furry pet than nonasthmatics (44.8%). Plus, we are more likely to allow our pets to sleep with us in the bedroom. Guilty on both counts! And among asthmatics, women are more likely to have a fur baby than men are.
When it comes to asthma medications, we know that people of both genders who have asthma don't always take them as often as they should or the way that they should. Women do tend to be better educated about their asthma and care, however, and more likely to carry a rescue inhaler. Men are more likely to need emergency care because they ran out of their medicine.
On the other hand, men tend to be more open and compliant in using peak flow meters to monitor their asthma than women are.
Research supports the role of gender in both the incidence and severity of asthma throughout life. It's possible that sex hormones play an important role in gender differences. However, other factors such as aging, obesity and lifestyle factors may also be involved and may have affected research data. So, more studies are needed before we can be 100% sure of the reasons behind these differences.
The facts remain, however: the experience of asthma is definitely going to be different for women throughout life than it is for men.
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