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Asthma Subgroups: Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS)

Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome (RADS). Another term for it is Irritant-Induced Asthma (IIA). This has been mentioned by members of our community. So, I figured it was worthy of a post on this site. Unlike “reactive airway disease,” it’s an official term. It’s a real diagnosis. So, what is it? Here’s what to know.

A little history

It was first recognized in 1985. It has since been recognized as an official diagnosis by the American Thoracic Society and the American College of Chest Physicians. It’s caused by a one-time exposure to gases, fumes, vapors, or smoke.1-2

It was actually recognized during WWI. Some industrial workers were reporting asthma-like symptoms. Some combatants were also describing asthma-like symptoms. It was observed that these symptoms were caused by massive exposures to substances in the air. This would be at their work or on the battlefields.3

In 1969, people were exposed to massive levels of chlorine after a spill. Some of those exposed described asthma-like symptoms. So, it was due to these early descriptions that resulted in much research in this area. 3  And it ultimately lead to the official description of RADS in 1985.

It’s not asthma. But, it presents similarly to asthma. Symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, sputum production, and coughing. But, unlike asthma, it’s not caused by developing a sensitivity to something over time. So, what does cause it? 1-2

RADS may have gained recognition after the World Trade Center events that took place on September 11, 2001. Lots of dust and fumes filled the air for days. Firefighters and people working and living in the area described asthma-like symptoms. They were ultimately diagnosed with RADS.3

What is RADS?

It’s caused by a massive exposure to some substance in the air. This may include a chemical spill. It may include inhaling smoke from a structure fire. It may include smoke or fumes on the battlefield. Or, as noted, it may be the result of a terrorist attack, such as what occurred on 9-11.

Sometimes RADS or IIA is diagnosed due to work exposure. When this happens it may be diagnosed as Occupational Asthma. If you need to, you may read my post, “What Is Occupational Asthma?”

Symptoms usually arise minutes or hours after exposure. These symptoms may persist over a long period of time after the single exposure. Like asthma, symptoms may subside. But, they return when exposed to triggers, such as asthma triggers.1-5

These may include strong smells, such as with perfumes. They may include campfire smoke or cigarette smoke. They may include allergens such as animal dander, pollen, mold spores, or dust mites. They may also include strong emotions, such as anxiety.1-5

Symptoms may last for months. Sometimes they last for years. In most cases, however, symptoms do eventually subside.4-5

What to make of this?

Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome is a real disease. It is caused by a single exposure to a massive amount of fumes, gas vapors, or smoke. Symptoms can be mild, and they can also be severe and life-threatening. It’s also treatable. It’s treated by avoiding triggers and by taking asthma medicine. But sometimes it responds poorly to asthma medicines, and a more aggressive approach is necessary. The path to getting a proper diagnosis and treatment begins by seeing a doctor.3-5

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The Asthma.net team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

  1. Burgess, Lana, “What Does Reactive Airway Disease Mean?” 2018, Medical News Today, February 27,https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/321061.php, accessed 1/18/19
  2. Fahy, John V., Paul M. O’Byrne, “Reactive Airway Disease: A Lazy Term Of Uncertain Meaning That Should Be Abandoned,” American Thoracic Society Journals, American Journal Of Respiratory And Critical Care Medicine, 2000, May 15, https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/ajrccm.163.4.2005049, accessed 1/22/19
  3. Lemiere, Catherine, Louis-Phillippe Boulet, Andre Cartier, “Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome and Irritant Induced Asthma,” Up To Date, https://www.uptodate.com/contents/reactive-airways-dysfunction-syndrome-and-irritant-induced-asthma, accessed 1/22/19
  4. “Reactive Airway Dysfunction Syndrome,” Health Navigator, https://www.healthnavigator.org.nz/health-a-z/r/reactive-airways-dysfunction-syndrome/, accessed 1/22/19
  5. Varney, et al., “Successful Treatment For Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome By High Dose Vitamin D,” Journal of Asthma & Allergy, 2011, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3196486/, accessed 1/22/19

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