Asthma symptoms are preventable and controllable with proper treatment. Yet this is only obtainable with a proper diagnosis. So, this makes getting a diagnosis of asthma so important. Here are 8 steps doctors may use to get to that diagnosis.
- Symptoms and Signs. You feel short of breath or have a cough. Shortness of breath is a tell-tale symptom of asthma. Chest tightness is another common symptom. Coughing is a common sign of asthma. Another sign is wheezing. But, some asthmatics do not wheeze. So, a diagnosis isn’t made on wheezing alone. Still, any of these may say asthma.
- Family History. So, you come to the emergency room with asthma symptoms. Your doctor asks, “Do your parents have asthma?” Or, “Do your siblings have asthma.” Or, “Did your grandparents have asthma?” Since asthma is genetic, you may get it from your parents. If you’re having symptoms, and report a family history, you may earn yourself a diagnosis of asthma. Sometimes doctors diagnose on these two factors alone. This is sometimes necessary so immediate treatment can begin
- Your History. You report to having asthma symptoms in the past. You report that these symptoms are only sometimes present. You may describe them as mild, moderate, or severe. You report symptoms at night or early in the morning. You report symptoms during colds. You report symptoms only during a certain time of year. You report symptoms when exposed to allergens, like dust mites. You’ve been to the emergency room for asthma symptoms in the past. You had a severe respiratory infection as a child. So, your reported history may help a doctor diagnose you with asthma. Or, at least point the finger in that direction.
- Physical Examination. Are you having an asthma attack right now? Your doctor can tell this by what you say. But, he may also be able to observe signs of asthma. So, what do you look like to our doctor? Are your shoulders hunched? Are you leaning on things to breathe? Is your breathing abnormal (paradoxical breathing)? These are all things a doctor will look for. He may also use a stethoscope to listen to your lung sounds. A common lung sound heard is wheezing. Now, keep in mind you may be having a good asthma day. In such cases, you may show no signs of asthma. This is when a doctor may rely on your history to make a diagnosis. Your doctor may also rely on a pulmonary function test.
- Pulmonary Function Test (PFT). This is where you do a series of breathing tests. It will show your lung function. Most asthmatics have normal lung function between attacks. This is the goal of any asthma treatment regimen. Still, the test can show if your lung function declines during attacks. It will show if your lung function gets better with treatment. This can help doctors decide if you have asthma.
- Differential Diagnosis. This is important if you continue to experience symptoms despite treatment. Your doctor may choose to test you for related diseases. Similar diseases include COPD, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, and GERD. These all may mimic asthma symptoms. But, they are all treated differently than asthma. Learning you do not have these can help doctors rule in asthma.
What to make of this?
As you can see, there is no one single test for diagnosing asthma. I have seen asthma diagnosed by history and assessment alone. This is nice when you need treatment right now. But, I have seen patients go through the gamut of testing too. In either case, once a diagnosis is made treatment can begin.