IS YOUR CHESTY COUGH ACTUALLY ASTHMA? You Might Think It's Just a Summer Cold. in Fact, You Could Be One of the Thousands of Adults Suddenly Developing Life-Threatening Asthma

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Byline: LUCY ELKINS

AS SOMEONE who runs eight miles at a time, three days a week, Caroline McDermott is used to feeling a bit out of breath.

However when jogging with her husband, Will, on a cold morning in May last year, she found herself not just puffed but struggling to breathe at all.

'We were just running up a little hill and suddenly I started to feel as if I couldn't get enough air into my lungs,' recalls Caroline, 48, a secondary school teacher from Duns on the Scottish borders. 'I was really gasping for air. Every time I tried to take in a mouthful my chest felt tight and I could feel a pain in my lungs. I didn't seem to be able to take big enough breaths.

'I am the kind of woman who tends to soldier through illness quite stoically, yet even I found this very frightening.

'I couldn't even walk; I just stood still, trying to suck in as much air in as I could. As a teacher I'd seen children having asthma attacks, and as I listened to my myself gasping and struggling to breathe I suddenly thought: "I wonder if that's what this is?" ' After about five minutes of rest Caroline was able to breathe more normally again, but much shaken, she and her husband then decided to walk the 3.5 miles home.

In fact Caroline's hunch about the cause of her breathlessness was right. She had suffered her first asthma attack at the ripe old age of 47. What was so frightening was that there had been no warning signs, she says, apart from the odd bout of breathlessness since her late 20s.

'But I thought that was simply a sign of getting older,' she recalls. 'I'd never linked it to asthma because you don't tend to think of it beginning in older people.' Indeed, most people think of asthma as a condition that emerges in childhood. However, increasing numbers of adults are now developing it for the first time. Between 2001 and 2004 the number of adults diagnosed with the condition rose by 400,000, while the rate at which children were diagnosed plateaued.

Asthma is just one of several types of allergies now increasingly common in adulthood, says Dr Philip Ind, a consultant senior lecturer at Imperial College, London, who specialises in asthma.

More adults are developing hayfever and food allergies and even anaphylaxis where the body reacts severely to an allergy, the effects being felt within minutes. In fact, the average age for being diagnosed with any allergy is not during childhood, but 31 and over, according to a report commissioned by The NHS Information Centre for Health and Social Care.

Quite why adult allergies -- which particularly affect women -- are on the rise isn't clear, although environmental factors such as pollution or a course of antibiotics may be to blame.

Another theory is that it's down to viral infections, which somehow affect the immune system.

Unfortunately, experts say that doctors aren't as attuned to the problem in adults as they are in children, leaving the allergy undiagnosed. This can have worrying consequences, particularly with asthma.

That's because the condition won't just make sufferers wheezy, it is potentially fatal. Worryingly, the adult onset form can be harder to keep in check than the type that comes on in childhood. It can affect the very small airways in the lungs and inhaled drugs, the standard treatment, cannot reach here.

This means it is harder to keep adult-onset patients free of symptoms, making them more prone to an attack.

Around 1,200 people died from asthma attacks in 2007, most of them adults.

Joanne Marshall, 37, a mother-ofone from Lincolnshire, discovered for herself the frightening risks of undiagnosed asthma.

When she suffered breathlessness for ten months her GP blamed pneumonia. Then she found herself suddenly struggling to breathe.

'I was getting ready for bed one night and felt tightness in my chest,' she recalls. …