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While bronchitis and asthma have similar symptoms, the treatment for these two conditions if different. Might you have been misdiagnosed?

Were you suffering from a terrible cough, shortness of breath, and wheezing when you went to the doctor for help and were diagnosed with acute bronchitis? You may have breathed a sigh or relief when your doctor informed you that bronchitis doesn't just frequently go away on its own without any special treatment besides rest and hydration, but also that it rarely has permanent health consequences [1]. When your lived experience doesn't match what your healthcare provider told you, however, and your symptoms just don't go away, something else may be going on. 

Bronchitis vs Asthma: Just Why Is There Such A Risk Of Misdiagnosis?

Acute bronchitis is among the 10 most common ailments your primary care provider will come across in their practice, with research suggesting that 40 to 50 out of every thousand people will develop acute bronchitis every year [2]. It's no surprise, really, that doctors' minds immediately tend to wander to really common conditions rather than rarer and chronic ones — especially if you are already an adult and you haven't yet been diagnosed with asthma to date. 

Nonetheless, the same study, conducted in the Netherlands, found that as much as 36.3 percent of those people diagnosed with acute bronchitis actually had asthma. An asthma diagnosis does not, of course, preclude the possibility of also developing acute bronchitis, but the problem in this study is that the people who later turned out to suffer from asthma were not diagnosed as asthmatic. The study further found that being female, current wheezing, and suffering from allergies were among the factors that indicated asthma as a likely possibility. 

Another study, this time from Italy, found that misdiagnosis is a problem in cases of suspected chronic bronchitis as well, and a significant portion of people who think they suffer from chronic bronchitis may actually have asthma. [3] People who keep on looking for new or over-the-counter medications for chronic bronchitis may find no relief, because they're looking for solutions to the wrong problem. 

Though treatments for chronic bronchitis and asthma do tend to overlap to a large extent, a misdiagnosis can severely affect people who were mistakenly diagnosed with acute bronchitis in particular. It's rough when you're told to rest up and drink lots of water, but what you really need is a bronchodilator (asthma inhaler) and corticosteroids. 

Asthma Symptoms To Watch Out For

Asthma, a chronic disease, causes your airways to narrow and become inflamed. Shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and a feeling of tightness in the chest are the most common symptoms. [4] Does that sound familiar? Yup, they're common symptoms of bronchitis as well!

When asthma gets really bad, you can, however, have something called an asthma attack. It includes all the above symptoms, but worse — much worse. Your symptoms may be so bad you can hardly walk or talk, and you genuinely believe you're about to die. (Asthma attacks can indeed be fatal if not treated properly.) Some people will additionally experience fatigue, itching in the neck region, dark bags under their eyes, and blue nails or lips (because you're not getting the oxygen you need). [5] The possibility of an asthma attack illustrates the importance of a correct diagnosis. 

Many people think that asthma develops in childhood, but though that can happen, asthma can rear its breathless head at any stage of life. [6] Don't let the fact that you're an adult convince you that you can't have asthma, and be aware of the facts that the following risk factors [7] will increase your risk of developing it:

Diagnostic Tests That Tell You Whether You Have Asthma

Whether your doctor immediately suspects that you may be suffering from asthma, or you have your own theory based on your symptoms, the following diagnostic tests can rule asthma in or out:

  • Though not strictly a "diagnostic test", your healthcare provider will certainly ask you questions about your symptoms and their triggers. 
  • Spirometry — you will be asked to breathe into a small device that measures the quantity and speed of your airflow. Participating in this test has no risks, but choosing to skip it does if you are suspected of having asthma. [8]
  • methacholine challenge test — in which you inhale an irritating substance to test how your airways will respond. [9]
  • Sometimes, when you present with acute and severe symptoms, you will be offered medication such as asthma inhalers on a "trial" basis, and if these medications offer you relief, that also gives your healthcare provider insights into the possible cause of your symptoms. 

Conclusion

If you're not feeling better after following treatment suggestions after being diagnosed with acute or chronic bronchitis, it is possible you were misdiagnosed. As we've seen, it happens more often than you may have thought! People suffering from shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing deserve a better quality of life — and that includes you. Be sure to ask your doctor about the possibility that you may have asthma if they didn't already offer you diagnostic tests. 

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