A symptom clue can lead us to suspect asthma as well as other conditions. Many different health conditions can cause the same symptoms that asthma does. Shortness of breath, chest tightness, coughing, excessive mucus, and wheezing could be symptoms of many other conditions. The following symptoms are often mistaken for asthma:
- You may have a cough, runny nose, stuffy nose, or mucus buildup in the throat due to seasonal allergies, known as allergic rhinitis. Or, it may be due to infections, known as sinusitis.
- You may cough and wheeze because you swallowed or inhaled a foreign object by mistake.
- You may have swollen glands, or lymph nodes, in your throat.
- If you have heart disease, you may have chest pain and shortness of breath because the heart muscle is damaged and weak and cannot get enough oxygen.
- If you have a vocal cord problem, your voice box may move in an abnormal way as you breathe.
- You may have a recurring cough that is not due to asthma.
- You may have a swallowing problem.
- If you have congestive heart failure, your heart does not pump hard enough. This causes fluid buildup everywhere in the body.
- If you take some blood pressure medicines, such as ACE inhibitors, you may notice that one of the side effects is coughing.
- If you have a lung disease, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), called chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, you may have continuous breathing problems. Emphysema causes the airways to expand abnormally, which traps air in the lungs. Long-term cigarette smoking can cause this disease.
- A digestive problem called gastroesophageal reflux disease, also called acid reflux or GERD, is sometimes associated with asthma. One condition may make the other worse. With GERD, it is common for the acidic contents of your stomach to flow back up into your esophagus instead of remaining in the stomach. This can lead to wheezing and other breathing problems. With asthma, and with some of the medicines that treat asthma, there's a great deal of pressure inside the chest. And that can lead to GERD. Some people find that treating their GERD problems can also help to relieve their asthma symptoms.
Written by Karen Serrano, MD
Emergency Medicine resident at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Reviewed by Lisa V. Suffian, MD
Instructor of Clinical Pediatrics in the Division of Allergy and Pulmonary Medicine at Saint Louis Children's Hospital, Washington University School of Medicine
Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Cardinal Glennon Children's Hospital, Saint Louis University
Board certified in Allergy and Immunology
Last updated June 2008