When you think of asthma and the most common asthma symptoms, what do you think of? Do you immediately think of things such as wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing? Those are the most common symptoms and the ones that the vast majority of asthmatics suffer from when their asthma starts to flare up.
But did you know that there are several other conditions that can mimic asthma that are not actually asthma? A person can have very similar symptoms to asthma but not have asthma at all. This is why proper diagnosis of asthma is crucial with proper testing(like lung function testing) along with physical exam and medical history with your doctor. Without a proper asthma diagnosis it is all guesswork. A doctor wouldn’t treat a diabetic with insulin without the proper testing so why would they treat asthma without a proper diagnosis?
With that said, there are many different conditions that can cause very similar symptoms to asthma but are treated in different ways.
Vocal Cord Dysfunction
Vocal Cord Dysfunction (VCD) is also called laryngeal dysfunction, or paradoxical vocal cord motion. Similar to asthma, VCD is often triggered by breathing in irritants, sickness and vigorous exercising. In people with VCD, instead of the vocal cords opening when you breathe in & out they close. This causes the feeling of tightness in the throat/upper airway, wheezing more so in the upper airway, the feeling of not being able to exhale fully, and a choking feeling. The main treatment for VCD includes breathing exercises which are taught by a speech therapist. It is not uncommon for asthmatics to have both asthma and VCD.
Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) occurs when the heart becomes too weak to effectively pump blood as well as it should. Symptoms of CHF include shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, persistent cough, swelling in the extremities to name a few. Treatment for CHF varies based on severity but includes lifestyle changes, medications and in severe cases even a heart transplant.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
More commonly known by its abbreviation COPD, this is an umbrella term that actually covers several lung diseases, the most common being emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. Where asthma is completely reversible between flare-ups with the right combination of medications, COPD, however, is not reversible and even with the best course of treatment worsens over time due to the permanent lung damage and scarring.
Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD)
This common disease affects 3 million people in the U.S and occurs when stomach acid backs up into the esophagus which can cause irritation. In severe cases it can aggravate asthma symptoms and cause wheezing. While oftentimes GERD can be controlled with dietary changes, medication and in severe cases, surgery can be necessary to correct the issue.
The Asthma copycats I mentioned above are only a few of the many that are out there. I have written before that not all that wheezes is asthma and not all asthmatics wheeze. It is important to rule out (or in) any of these potential other conditions so that your medical team can come up with a proper treatment plan.