It’s a common scenario: A person suffering from a persistent cough or breathing problems goes to the doctor. The doctor observes their symptoms and declares they have asthma.
The patient is put on long-term medication. They are told it will ease their symptoms or stop future flare-ups.
But an alarming study shows that many of these patients don’t have asthma at all. And the medications they are given don’t do them any good. Most of these misdiagnosed people needlessly take steroid drugs for years.
Researchers at the University of Ottawa recruited 613 people who had been told by their doctors that they had asthma.
Over four visits, researchers tested the patients to see if they really had the condition. They measured how much air the subjects could inhale and exhale, and how fast they could do it. The scientists used peak flow meters and spirometers for the tests. These devices are the gold standard for asthma testing.
Scientists found that nearly a third—203 of the 613 patients—did not have asthma.
Asthma Misdiagnosis Is Common
How could such rampant misdiagnosis occur? Blame “drive-thru” medicine.
In an effort to see as many patients as possible, hurried doctors often fail to take the time to do proper testing. Instead, they merely observe symptoms, assume it is asthma, prescribe a drug, and send their patient on their way.
Dr. Shawn D. Aaron is a professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. He was lead author of the study. Dr. Aaron warned that a cough or a wheeze is not enough for your doctor to know if you have asthma. If they suspect asthma, they need to order a spirometry test.
“Doctors would not diagnose diabetes without checking blood sugar levels, or a broken bone without ordering an X-ray,” said Dr. Aaron. “But for some reason, many doctors are not ordering the spirometry tests that can definitively diagnose asthma.”
Many of the patients diagnosed with asthma actually had another respiratory condition, such as a cold or smoker’s cough.
After identifying people who were wrongly told they had asthma, Dr. Aaron and his colleagues took the study a step further. They took these patients off their asthma medications. Most had been put on steroid-based drugs.
After being taken off the drugs, scientists followed the patients for 15 months. During the follow up, 181 of the 203 patients had no breathing difficulties.
The study recently was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).
Many asthma patients are prescribed inhaled low-dose steroids. They usually do not have serious side effects. But they can cause yeast infections.
Steroids taken in pill form or injections can have major side effects. They can cause weakness, weight gain, mood and behavior changes, or bone loss.
Get the Right Asthma Test to Get the Correct Diagnosis
If you have been diagnosed with asthma, make sure you get a spirometry test. It is noninvasive and painless. You simply breathe into a machine. The device measures the airflow in and out of your lungs. It takes no more than a few minutes. Your health insurance will pay for it.
It may save you from a lifetime of taking drugs you don’t need.
Editor’s Note: If you’re worried about medication side effects, there’s something else you should know…
Eighty percent of U.S. medications are made in Asian factories with abysmal quality control. The result? Some 128,000 Americans a year die from the effects of prescription drugs.