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 breathing difficulty can, and they can worsen if not diagnosed and treated. Also, other possible diagnoses affecting the cardiovascular or other organ systems can be serious and require early treatment for the best outcomes.

That's why seeking a proper diagnosis is essential. You may very well have asthma if you have trouble breathing, particularly if your symptoms occur in episodes and flare up suddenly. But in the end, only a healthcare provider can differentiate it from other possible diseases and disorders.

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 related to the lungs and respiratory system, others are associated with other organ systems, such as the heart.

When investigating potential asthma, your healthcare provider will consider all possible causes of your breathing difficulty in a process called differential diagnosis. This is a process of elimination based on your symptoms and test results.

GERD

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 (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 unexplained weight loss, persistent fatigue, and clubbing (enlarged ends) of the fingers or toes.

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

Recap

Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) can cause stomach acid to come up into the food pipe. If it's inhaled in the lungs, it can cause inflammation in the air sacs of the lungs. If this happens over a long period of time, it can lead to lung scarring (fibrosis).

COPD

1:46

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 of the disease, the symptoms may mimic those of asthma. It may even flare if the lungs are exposed to allergens, fumes, or cold weather.

Among the differentiating early clues are 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 can cause asthma-like symptoms. It also causes a buildup of fluid in the lungs (pleural effusion), swelling in the lower extremities (edema), and shortness of breath (dyspnea) when lying flat.

Vocal Cord Dysfunction

Vocal cord dysfunction is a condition in which the vocal cords stay closed when a person breathes. 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 if allergy tests are inconclusive.

Recap

In hypersensitivity pneumonitis (HP), certain substances can cause an allergic reaction in the lungs. It has some of the same triggers as asthma so it can often be mistaken for it.

Pulmonary Sarcoidosis

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

The cause of the disease is unknown, but it typically causes asthma-like symptoms. With pulmonary sarcoidosis, the symptoms will be persistent rather than having occasional episodes like 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

Tracheal tumors affecting the windpipe (trachea) can often start with asthma-like symptoms. Because they are so rare, tracheal tumors are frequently diagnosed as asthma.

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

Recap

Tracheal tumors are rare. They may start with asthma-like symptoms, but they progress to coughing up blood.

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, be sharp, and worsen when you cough or inhale. You may cough up pinkish bloody foam if you have PE.

Recap

Pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot in the lungs. It causes symptoms that include chest pains when you cough or breathe.

Diagnosis

If you experience asthma-like symptoms, your healthcare provider may order a number of 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:

  • Peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) measures how much air you can quickly exhale from the lungs.
  • Spirometry is a more comprehensive test that 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 detailed 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

Treatment

If asthma is diagnosed, your healthcare provider may prescribe some of the following treatments. These 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 more invasive procedures or surgeries to treat acute heart failure or tracheal tumors.

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 a COPD exacerbation.

Options include:

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

Recap

Short-acting beta-agonists (SABAs) are rescue inhalers that are used for acute asthma symptoms, including severe shortness of breath or wheezing. They can be used for COPD for flare-ups and preventing issues before exercising.

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:

Recap

Inhaled steroids help with long-term control of asthma. They may also be used to treat COPD and pulmonary sarcoidosis.

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:

Recap

Long-acting beta-agonists, or LABAs, may be used with inhaled steroids to treat asthma or COPD. Your doctor may prescribe a LABA along with an inhaled corticosteroid or a combination inhaler with both a LABA and corticosteroid.

Anticholinergics

Anticholinergics are often used in combination with SABAs to treat respiratory emergencies. They are used for severe allergy attacks rather than on an ongoing basis for disease management.

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 COPD patients with an underlying heart condition.

Recap

Anticholinergics may be used with SABAs to treat severe allergy attacks. Tiotropium and ipratropium may increase the risk of heart failure in those with COPD.

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, the drugs 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.

Summary

Difficulty breathing may be caused by asthma or a number of other health conditions. 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 abnormalities. Or they may include pulmonary function tests to see how well your lungs work.

Based on the results of testing, your doctor can make a diagnosis and begin treatment for that condition.

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 pulmonologist (a lung specialist), who can order tests to confirm that asthma is indeed the cause.

If you decide to skip the healthcare provider and treat your condition with an over-the-counter asthma 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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