Difficulty Breathing: Is It Asthma or Something Else?

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Difficulty breathing—whether it's wheezing, chest pain or tightness, shortness of breath, or coughing—is characteristic of asthma. But it can also occur with gastrointestinal reflux disease (GERD), chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, viral infections, and other conditions.

As distressing as asthma can be, the disease rarely causes progressive lung damage. But other lung diseases that cause similar symptoms can, and they can worsen if not diagnosed and treated.

That's why seeking a proper diagnosis is essential. You may have asthma if you have trouble breathing, particularly if your symptoms occur in episodes and flare up suddenly. A healthcare provider can differentiate asthma from other illnesses, often with the help of certain diagnostic tests.

This article will discuss the types of conditions that can cause symptoms similar to asthma. It also covers how your doctor can diagnose breathing problems and what treatments are available.

Conditions That Mimic Asthma

Theresa Chiechi / Verywell

Conditions That Mimic Asthma

There are a number of conditions that can cause shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness. While most are lung disorders, some are associated with other organ systems, such as the heart.

When investigating your symptoms, your healthcare provider will consider all possible causes of your breathing difficulty using a process called differential diagnosis that considers potential causes, eliminating those that don't fit with all of your symptoms and diagnostic tests.


Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) is a chronic condition in which acid from the stomach escapes into the esophagus. Although GERD is characterized by gastrointestinal symptoms, stomach acid can come up the food pipe and be inhaled into the lungs. This can lead to pneumonitis, which is inflammation of the air sacs of the lungs.

In addition to asthma-like symptoms, pneumonitis can be recognized by a crackling sound in the lungs called rales. It can also cause weight loss, persistent fatigue, and clubbing (enlarged ends) of the fingers or toes.

Fibrosis (lung scarring) is a long-term consequence of GERD-induced pneumonitis (also referred to as reflux-aspiration syndrome).



7 Differences Between COPD and Asthma

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disorder most commonly associated with smoking. In the early stages, COPD symptoms are similar to those of asthma and may flare if the lungs are exposed to allergens, fumes, or cold weather.

Symptoms of COPD that are not typically present with asthma include fluid retention, trouble sleeping, an increasing nagging cough, and bringing up clear, whitish, or yellow phlegm.

Congestive Heart Failure

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition in which the heart does not pump strongly enough to supply the body with blood and oxygen.

CHF causes fatigue, pleural effusion (a buildup of fluid in the lungs), edema (swelling of the lower extremities), and dyspnea (shortness of breath).

Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction is a condition in which the vocal cords stay closed while breathing. This makes it difficult to get air in or out of the lungs.

Vocal cord dysfunction typically causes hoarseness along with wheezing and a feeling of tightness and strangulation in the throat.

Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis

Hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP) is an uncommon condition in which exposure to certain substances can lead to an allergic reaction in the lungs.

These substances can include things like moldy hay and bird droppings. Because HP has many of the same allergenic triggers as asthma, it can easily be mistaken for it.

HP may also cause flu-like symptoms, rales (crackling sound in lungs), weight loss, fatigue, and clubbing of the fingers and toes. Only allergy testing can confirm the diagnosis. Chronic HP cases may require a lung biopsy for diagnosis if allergy tests are inconclusive.

Pulmonary Sarcoidosis

Pulmonary sarcoidosis is a disease characterized by granulomas (small lumps of inflammatory cells) in the lungs.

The cause is unknown, and it typically causes asthma-like symptoms. With pulmonary sarcoidosis, the symptoms will be persistent, unlike the occasional episodes of asthma. It may be accompanied by night sweats, swollen lymph glands, fatigue, fever, joint or muscle pain, skin rashes, blurred vision, and light sensitivity.

Tracheal Tumors

Tumors affecting the trachea (windpipe) can often start with asthma-like symptoms. Because they are so rare, tracheal tumors may be initially misdiagnosed as asthma.

Hemoptysis (coughing up blood) is often the first clue that something serious is involved. Tracheal tumors can either be benign (noncancerous) or malignant (cancerous). They typically require a biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.

Pulmonary Embolism

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a condition in which a blood clot blocks an artery in the lungs. PE is associated with obesity, smoking, certain medications (including birth control pills), and prolonged immobility in a car or airplane.

Compared to asthma, wheezing is less common with PE. Chest pains tend to begin suddenly, feel sharp, and worsen when you cough or inhale. You may cough up pinkish bloody foam if you have PE.


If you experience asthma-like symptoms, your healthcare provider may order some diagnostic tests to identify the cause.

Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) evaluate how well your lungs work. Imaging studies can check for abnormalities in your lungs and airways.

These diagnostic tests may include the following:

  • Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) measures how much air you can quickly exhale from your lungs.
  • Spirometry measures the capacity of the lungs and the strength with which air is exhaled.
  • Bronchoprovocation challenge testing involves monitored exposure to substances meant to trigger respiratory symptoms.
  • Bronchodilator response uses an inhaled bronchodilator, a medication that opens the airways, to see if your lung function improves.
  • Exhaled nitric oxide is a test that measures how much nitric oxide is exhaled from the lungs (a common indicator of lung inflammation).
  • Chest X-rays use ionizing radiation to create images to see if there are clots, effusion (fluid), or tumors in the lungs.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans take multiple X-ray images, which are then converted into three-dimensional "slices" of the lungs and respiratory tract.

Based on the finding of these investigations, other tests may be performed. These include endoscopy (a flexible tube with a camera to view internal organs), allergy tests, and lung biopsy.

In the end, three criteria must be met to diagnose asthma:

  • The history or presence of asthma symptoms
  • Evidence of airway obstruction using PFTs and other tests
  • Improvement of lung function of 12% or more when provided a bronchodilator

All other causes of airway obstruction, most especially COPD, need to be excluded before a formal asthma diagnosis can be made.

Differential Diagnosis of Asthma
Condition Differentiating Symptoms Differentiating Tests
Congestive heart failure •History of coronary artery disease (CAD) •Swelling of legs •Rales  •Shortness of breath when lying down •Chest X-ray showing pleural effusion •Echocardiogram
Pulmonary embolism •Sharp chest pain when coughing or inhaling •Pink, foamy sputum •CT scan of airways with contrast dye
COPD •History of smoking  •Productive (wet) cough •Shortness of breath occurring on its own •PFT values different from asthma •Chest X-ray showing lung hyperinflation
GERD-induced pneumontitis •Rales •Clubbing of fingers or toes •Reflux symptoms Endoscopy to check for esophageal injury •Chest X-ray showing lung scarring
Hypersensitivity pneumonitis •Weight loss •Fever •Rales •Clubbing of fingers or toes •Chest X-ray showing lung scarring •Allergy antibody testing •Lung biopsy  
Pulmonary sarcoidosis •Weight loss •Night sweats •Skin rash •Visual problems •Swollen lymph glands •Chest X-ray showing areas of cloudiness
Vocal cord dysfunction •Wheezing when inhaling and exhaling •Throat tightness •Feeling of strangulation •Endoscopy of the trachea
Tracheal tumors •Barking cough •Coughing up blood •Chest X-ray •Tumor biopsy


If you are diagnosed with asthma, your healthcare provider may prescribe some of the following treatments. Treatments can improve breathing in an emergency and prevent asthma attacks, or flare-ups, from happening again.

If asthma is not the cause of your breathing difficulties, other treatments will be considered based on your diagnosis. These can include chronic medications that manage symptoms of GERD, COPD, or CHF. Or it may involve a procedure to treat acute heart failure or a tumor.

Short-Acting Beta-Agonists

Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs), also known as rescue inhalers, are commonly used to treat acute (sudden and severe) asthma symptoms. They can also treat respiratory impairment and acute exacerbations, or flare-ups, in people with COPD.

They are used for quick relief whenever you experience severe episodes of shortness of breath and wheezing. SABAs are also commonly inhaled before physical activity to prevent asthma symptoms during exercise.

Options include:

  • Albuterol (available as Proventil, Ventolin, ProAir, and others)
  • Combivent (albuterol plus ipratropium)
  • Xopenex (levalbuterol)

Inhaled Steroids

Inhaled corticosteroids, also referred to as inhaled steroids, are used to alleviate lung inflammation and reduce airway hypersensitivity to allergenic triggers.

Inhaled steroids are the most effective medications available for the long-term control of asthma.

Inhaled or oral corticosteroids are often included in treatment protocols for COPD and pulmonary sarcoidosis. Oral steroids may be used in emergency situations to treat severe asthma attacks.

Options include:

Long-Acting Beta-Agonists

Long-acting beta-agonists (LABAs) are used along with inhaled steroids when asthma symptoms are not controlled with SABAs alone. If you experience difficulty breathing at night, a LABA can help you get more rest.

LABAs are also used along with inhaled corticosteroids for the daily management of COPD.

Options include:

  • Arcapta (indacaterol)
  • Brovana (arformoterol)
  • Perforomist (formoterol)
  • Serevent (salmeterol)
  • Stiverdi (olodaterol)

There are also four combination inhalers approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that combine an inhaled LABA with an inhaled corticosteroid:


Anticholinergics are often used in combination with SABAs to treat respiratory emergencies. They are used for severe asthma attacks in combination with a SABA in the case of ipratropium. They are also used as add-on therapy for asthma maintenance in the case of Spiriva.

Anticholinergics used for bronchodilators include:

There is also a combination inhaler called Combivent that contains albuterol, a SABA, and the anticholinergic drug ipratropium.

Anticholinergics are also sometimes used to treat COPD. Tiotropium and ipratropium may increase the risk of a cardiovascular event, including heart failure, in people who have COPD and an underlying heart condition.

Leukotriene Modifiers

Leukotriene modifiers are a class of drugs that may be considered if your healthcare provider thinks your asthma attacks are related to allergies. Although less effective than inhaled steroids, they may be used on their own if breathing problems are mild and persistent.

Three leukotriene modifiers are approved for use in the United States:

Some asthma medications are useful in treating other respiratory conditions. However, you should never use a drug prescribed for asthma for any other purpose without first speaking with your healthcare provider.


Difficulty breathing may be caused by asthma or another health condition. Conditions that can cause shortness of breath include GERD, congestive heart failure, vocal cord dysfunction, pulmonary embolism, and pulmonary sarcoidosis.

Your doctor will order tests based on your symptoms. They may include imaging tests to look for structural lung abnormalities or pulmonary function tests to see how well your lungs work.

Based on the results of testing, your doctor can make a diagnosis and prescribe treatment.

Some treatments for asthma, including rescue inhalers and inhaled steroids, are sometimes used for conditions like COPD as well. However, you should always check with your doctor for a correct diagnosis before using asthma medication.

A Word From Verywell

What may seem like asthma is not always asthma. The only way to know for sure is to see a healthcare provider, such as a pulmonologist (a lung specialist).

If you try to self-treat with an over-the-counter product like Primatene Mist, any alleviation of symptoms does not mean that asthma was the cause. All you may be doing is masking the real cause of your breathing problems and placing yourself at risk of long-term harm.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Pat Bass, MD
Dr. Bass is a board-certified internist, pediatrician, and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Physicians.