How Is Asthma Diagnosed?

How Do Doctors Diagnose Asthma?

There is no specific test that can diagnose asthma with certainty. Fortunately the average case of adult asthma is pretty easy to spot, and the same is true for children over 5. Usually a diagnosis can be given by a family doctor, who will only diagnose asthma after several attacks have occurred.

Some patients now described as asthmatic would have been given a different diagnosis (such as wheezy bronchitis) 30 years ago. To some extent, this is because asthma was under-diagnosed in the past: doctors were hesitant about giving a diagnosis of asthma because they believed it to be psychosomatic in some people (mind causing the symptoms). Sweeping away this stigma has been of immense value, but now certain patients (especially young children) may get diagnosed as asthmatic without enough evidence. On the other hand, there are also many instances of asthma being missed.

Questions Your Doctor Will Investigate

There are four separate aspects to a diagnosis:

1 Is this really asthma or something else?
2 Is it combined with other diseases, and how are they affecting the asthma?
3 What is the basic cause of the inflammation in the airways, and can this be avoided?
4 What sort of factors trigger the asthma attacks? See: What triggers an asthma attack?

Not all doctors will follow this full diagnostic program, but you can help by finding answers to some of the questions yourself.

Asthma Tests

These 2 tests should be carried out before you are given a diagnosis of asthma:

Peak Flow Test/Spirometry Meter
This is a lung test. This hand-held meter measures how much air you can breathe in and out. It also measures how fast you can blow air out.

Reversibility Test
This test involves inhaling a beta-2 reliever drug which relaxes the airway muscles. A spirometry test is performed before inhaling the drugs and after. If the drug improves peak flow by more than 15 percent, this strongly suggests asthma.

When Is Asthma Difficult To Diagnose?

Asthma may be difficult to diagnose in certain situations:

• In babies, who often wheeze, especially when they have colds or chest infections. This generally clears up later and does not automatically develop into asthma. There is great controversy about whether wheezy babies should be labeled 'asthmatic' or not, and how bad the wheezing should be before they are given asthma drugs. Views on this vary, so you may want to see a different doctor for a second opinion. For older children who wheeze only when they get chest infections, most doctors feel it is valuable to use asthma drugs - such treatment does not 'turn wheezing into asthma' as is sometimes claimed.

• When the main symptom is coughing. See, when is a cough asthma?

• When asthma occurs only at night. In some asthmatics, even intensive testing reveals no abnormality in the airways during the day. The only way to diagnose the condition is to use a peak-flow meter at home, morning and evening.

• When there is a sudden one-off asthma attack in response to a powerful allergen load. This sometimes happens to hay fever sufferers at the height of the pollen season (especially during thunderstorms). Some doctors will want to start asthma drugs immediately, but it may be better to get the hay fever well controlled with antihistamines and see what happens. Often there are no further asthma attacks.

Next: When is asthma not asthma?

Other Questions

What Is Asthma?: Easy definition.
What Causes Asthma? The DNA, family and lifestyle connection.
What Are The Symptoms Of Asthma? Discover the top signs.
What Is The Treatment For Asthma? Medicines and therapies.
What Is An Asthma Diet? Foods and natural remedies.

What Is The Best Exercise For Asthma? Exercise is still recommended.

• Got another question? See: Allergy Questions

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