(Last Updated On: June 22, 2023)

What Medical Conditions Are Mistaken for Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic condition that affects the airways in the lungs, causing difficulty breathing, chest tightness, and wheezing. However, other medical conditions can cause similar symptoms, sometimes leading to a misdiagnosis of asthma. These conditions often have asthma-like symptoms and can occur in both children and adults.

Diagnosing asthma is not always straightforward. Some patients may have symptoms that are consistent with asthma, but their diagnostic test results may be inconclusive. Healthcare providers may need to monitor patients over time to determine whether their symptoms are due to asthma or another underlying condition.

Middle aged man talking to doctor, explaining breathing problems

Asthma Symptoms

Asthma symptoms can range from mild to severe and can vary from person to person. Some common asthma  symptoms include wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness.

Wheezing, a high-pitched whistling sound heard during breathing, is caused by air passing through narrowed airways. Wheezing is a classic symptom of asthma and is often the first symptom people notice. People with asthma may experience wheezing during physical activity or when they are exposed to certain triggers, such as allergens or irritants.

Coughing is another common symptom of asthma. Coughing may be the only symptom of asthma in some people. The cough associated with asthma can be a dry cough or wet (productive) cough and may be more frequent at night. Exposure to allergens or irritants can also trigger coughing.

Shortness of breath is a feeling of not being able to get enough air into the lungs and can occur at any time for asthma sufferers, even when not engaged in physical activity. Shortness of breath can be caused by a narrowing of the airways due to inflammation, excess mucus production, or muscle constriction.

Chest tightness is a feeling of pressure or tightness in the chest that can be accompanied by difficulty breathing and can be a sign of a severe asthma attack. Inflammation and narrowing of airways cause chest tightness. People with asthma may also experience fatigue, difficulty sleeping, and decreased ability to exercise.

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to talk to your healthcare provider about their possible causes and treatments.

Other Conditions with Similar Symptoms to Asthma

Several other conditions can cause symptoms similar to those of asthma. These conditions can often be mistaken for asthma, leading to misdiagnosis and potentially harmful treatment.

Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD) and asthma share many of the same symptoms, such as shortness of breath and coughing. However, VCD has distinct causes and treatment options. VCD occurs when the vocal cords, which are located in the throat and are responsible for producing sound when speaking, suddenly close instead of opening during breathing. This closure can cause a feeling of tightness in the chest and difficulty breathing.

One of the primary causes of VCD is stress or anxiety. When the body is under stress, the muscles in the throat become tense and constrict, causing the vocal cords to close. In some cases, VCD can be triggered by exposure to irritants or toxins in the environment, such as smoke or pollution.

Diagnosing VCD can be challenging, as its symptoms can often mimic those of asthma. However, there are some key differences. Unlike asthma, VCD is not typically triggered by exercise or allergies and does not respond to traditional asthma medications like inhalers.

Instead, treatment for VCD typically involves identifying and addressing the underlying cause of the condition. This treatment may involve relaxation techniques to relieve stress and tension in the muscles, or avoiding certain irritants in the environment that may trigger an episode. Speech therapy may also be helpful. By working with a speech therapist, individuals with VCD can learn techniques to control their breathing and prevent episodes of vocal cord dysfunction.

It is vital to know the symptoms of VCD, as it can be a serious and potentially life-threatening condition if left untreated. If you are experiencing symptoms of chest tightness, difficulty breathing, or coughing, speak with a healthcare professional to determine the cause and appropriate course of treatment.

Chronic Cough

Chronic cough–a cough lasting for eight weeks or longer–can also be a symptom of asthma. A range of underlying health issues can cause a chronic cough. While some causes may be mild and self-limited, others may require medical attention and intervention.

One of the most common causes of chronic cough is postnasal drip, occurring when excess mucus produced by the nose and sinuses drips down the back of the throat, triggering a cough reflex. Respiratory infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and sinusitis can also cause a chronic cough.

Non-respiratory causes of chronic cough may include acid reflux, causing stomach acid to irritate the throat and trigger coughing. Another potential cause is the use of ACE inhibitors–medications commonly used to treat high blood pressure.

Diagnosing chronic cough usually requires a thorough medical evaluation by a healthcare provider. The evaluation may include taking a detailed medical history and performing a physical examination, as well as ordering diagnostic tests such as chest X-rays, lung function tests, and allergy testing.

Treatment for chronic cough varies depending on the root cause of the problem. For example, if the cough is caused by postnasal drip, treatment may include using a saline nasal spray or decongestant medication. If acid reflux is responsible for the cough, certain dietary adjustments and medication can help. In some cases, managing chronic cough may require a combination of treatment options. For example, if a person has both postnasal drip and acid reflux contributing to their cough, treatment may include both medication and lifestyle changes. Quitting smoking can also be beneficial as smoking can worsen cough symptoms.

Hay fever

Hay fever, also known as allergic rhinitis, is a common condition caused by an allergic reaction to pollen, dust mites, or other airborne particles. Its symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, and itchy eyes, can be similar to asthma symptoms.

During the spring and summer months, when pollen levels are high, people with hay fever often struggle to manage their symptoms. However, there are several ways to reduce the impact of hay fever and improve quality of life. One of the first steps in managing hay fever is to identify the allergen that triggers the symptoms. This can be done with the help of a healthcare professional, who will perform an allergy test to determine the specific type of pollen or other allergen that is causing the reaction.

Myocardial Ischemia

Another condition that can mimic asthma is myocardial ischemia, according to WebMD.

Myocardial ischemia is a disease of heart function characterized by inadequate blood flow to the muscle tissue of the heart. The main symptom is pain, but shortness of breath is another possible symptom.

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)

Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) is a chronic digestive condition caused by the reflux of stomach acid into the esophagus. This condition occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter, a ring of muscle at the bottom of the esophagus, fails to close properly. The resulting heartburn can cause asthma symptoms.

The symptoms of GERD can range from mild to severe and often include heartburn, regurgitation, chest pain, difficulty swallowing, and hoarseness. These symptoms usually occur after eating and can worsen at night or when lying down. GERD can affect anyone, but certain factors increase the risk of developing the condition, such as obesity, smoking, pregnancy, and a family history of GERD. Certain foods, such as spicy or fatty foods, chocolate, alcohol, and caffeine, can also trigger or worsen GERD symptoms.

Respiratory Symptoms and Infections

Respiratory symptoms and infections are common conditions that can affect people of all ages. These conditions can range from mild to severe and can be similar to asthma symptoms. Some of the common respiratory symptoms include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, chest pain, and congestion. These symptoms can be caused by various factors such as viral or bacterial infections, allergies, and exposure to irritants such as smoke and pollution.

Respiratory infections are caused by viruses or bacteria that can affect the upper or lower respiratory tract. Some common types of respiratory infections include the flu, the common cold, bronchitis, and pneumonia. These infections can cause flu-like symptoms such as fever, chills, coughing, and fatigue. It is essential to seek medical attention when experiencing respiratory symptoms or infections, especially if the symptoms are severe or do not improve after a few days. A healthcare provider can help diagnose the underlying cause of the symptoms and recommend appropriate treatment.

Lung Diseases

Lung diseases are a group of conditions that affect the respiratory system, compromising the function of the lungs–similar to the effect of asthma. The respiratory system is responsible for taking in oxygen and filtering out carbon dioxide from the body. Hence, any ailment that impairs or hinders this process could have severe consequences.

The most common lung diseases include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, interstitial lung disease, pneumonia, and lung cancer. Each has unique characteristics, but they share similar symptoms such as shortness of breath, cough, chest pain, and fatigue. COPD is a progressive condition that causes blockages in the airways, making air flow in and out of the lungs difficult. It typically develops as a result of smoking or exposure to harmful pollutants, such as chemicals, dust, or fumes. Interstitial lung disease is a group of diseases that affect the tissue and spaces around the air sacs of the lungs. The disease often leads to scarring of the lung tissue, making it more difficult for oxygen to reach the bloodstream.

Pneumonia is an infection of the lung tissue commonly caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. The condition results in inflammation of the airways and can lead to difficulty breathing, chest pain, and coughing. Lung cancer results from abnormal cell growth in the lung tissue and can spread to other parts of the body. Symptoms of lung cancer include shortness of breath, chest pain, persistent coughing, and fatigue.

To diagnose lung diseases, physicians use various diagnostic tests such as chest X-rays, lung function tests, blood tests, and CT scans, among others. Early detection of lung diseases is vital in managing and treating the condition effectively.

Foreign Body Inhalation

Foreign body inhalation is a common condition in which an object enters the respiratory tract and becomes lodged in the airways. Foreign body inhalation can occur in people of all ages, but it is most common in toddlers and young children who are prone to putting small objects in their mouths. The symptoms of foreign body inhalation depend on where the object is lodged in the respiratory tract. Common symptoms can mimic asthma symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, choking, chest pain, and difficulty breathing.

If a foreign object is suspected in the airways, immediate medical intervention is necessary. The first step in treating foreign body inhalation is to diagnose the location of the object, which can be done through a physical exam or imaging tests such as chest X-rays or CT scans.

How Are These Conditions Ruled Out and Asthma Correctly Diagnosed?

Not all cases of respiratory distress are due to asthma. Many other medical conditions can present with similar symptoms, making an accurate diagnosis challenging. To correctly diagnose asthma, a comprehensive evaluation of a patient’s medical history, clinical symptoms, and diagnostic tests is necessary. The first step of a diagnostic evaluation is ruling out other conditions that can cause respiratory symptoms. This process involves taking a detailed medical history and performing a physical exam.

Once other conditions have been ruled out, diagnostic tests are used to confirm the diagnosis of asthma accurately. Lung function tests such as spirometry and peak flow measurements are essential for assessing how well the lungs are working. These tests measure how much air a patient can exhale and how quickly they can do so. In some cases, doctors may order blood tests, chest X-rays, and allergy testing to rule out other potential causes of respiratory symptoms. Nasal nitric oxide measurements and flexible bronchoscopy are also useful diagnostic tools in some instances.

Diagnosing asthma is not always straightforward. Some patients may have symptoms that are consistent with asthma, but their diagnostic test results may be inconclusive. In these cases, doctors may need to monitor patients over time to determine whether their symptoms are due to asthma or another underlying condition.

Find Out What’s Triggering Your Symptoms

If you’re experiencing respiratory symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath, it’s essential to understand what may be triggering those symptoms. Identifying the cause of your symptoms is crucial in developing a treatment plan that addresses the root cause of the problem.

One of the most common triggers of respiratory symptoms is allergens. Allergens are substances that can cause an allergic reaction in some people. Common allergens include pollen, mold, dust mites, and pet dander. If you suspect that allergens may be triggering your symptoms, it’s essential to take steps to reduce your exposure. These steps may include using air purifiers, washing bedding regularly, and avoiding known triggers.

Another potential trigger of respiratory symptoms is respiratory infections. If you’ve had a recent cold or flu, you may experience ongoing coughing or shortness of breath. If you suspect that a respiratory infection is causing your symptoms, it’s critical to seek medical treatment. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics or other medications to help clear the infection.

Other potential triggers of respiratory symptoms include stress, exercise, and environmental pollutants. If you notice that your symptoms worsen in certain environments or situations, it’s essential to pay attention to those triggers and take steps to avoid them.

Ultimately, the key to managing respiratory symptoms is to identify and address the underlying cause of the problem. If you’re struggling with respiratory symptoms, don’t wait to seek medical attention. Your doctor can help you determine what may be causing your symptoms and develop a personalized treatment plan that addresses your needs. With the right care and attention, you can breathe easier and enjoy a higher quality of life free from respiratory symptoms.

When to See a Specialist About Your Asthma

While most cases of asthma can be managed with medication and lifestyle changes, some cases require specialized care. Determining when you need to see a specialist for your asthma can be challenging. A few signs it may be time to seek out specialized care include:

  1. Your Asthma Symptoms are Getting Worse
    If your asthma symptoms are becoming more severe, it’s time to see a specialist. For instance, if you’re experiencing frequent asthma attacks, increasing shortness of breath, or chest tightness, it’s crucial for a specialist to evaluate you. A specialist can assess your symptoms and make changes to your medication to get your condition under control.

  2. Your Asthma is Not Responding to Treatment
    If you’ve been following your asthma management plan, taking your medications as prescribed, and avoiding triggers, but your asthma symptoms are still not improving, it’s time to see a specialist. A specialist can perform additional tests to determine if there are underlying conditions contributing to your asthma, and they may be able to adjust your treatment plan to better manage your symptoms.
  3. Your Asthma Episodes are More Frequent
    If your asthma symptoms are becoming more frequent or you have been hospitalized for asthma, it’s essential to see a specialist because you may have underlying issues that require specialized care. A healthcare provider can help you understand the triggers and develop a more effective management plan to reduce the frequency of your episodes.
  4. Your Asthma is Affecting Your Daily Life
    If your asthma is affecting your daily life, causing you to miss work or social activities, it’s crucial to seek specialized care. A specialist can assess your condition and help you develop an asthma action plan that can help you better manage your symptoms. With the right care, you can reduce the impact of your asthma on your daily life and improve your quality of life.

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