GERD Symptoms Can Mimic Asthma, Confusing Doctors and Patients

05. 30. 2016

Tell someone who has been diagnosed with asthma that they don’t need their inhaler and they’re likely to look at you like you’re crazy. But that’s exactly what happened to Pauline Saunders, a 52-year-old human resources manager from Oxted, England. When Saunders visited her general practitioner with a chronic cough, she was diagnosed with asthma and given a preventer steroid inhaler. After weeks of seeing minimal results, Saunders was given an additional inhaler which also failed to alleviate her symptoms. This trial and error process continued for months until Saunders finally visited a lung specialist for a lung function test. The results showed that Saunders did not have asthma at all. She had gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD.

GERD is a digestive disorder that affects approximately seven million adults in the United States. While the hallmark symptom of GERD is chronic heartburn, other symptoms may include hoarseness, nausea, sore throat, and chronic dry cough.

According to Ian Pavord, a professor of respiratory medicine at Oxford University, the confusion between GERD symptoms and asthma is not uncommon. “I quite often see people who don’t have asthma but have reflux,” he says. “The chronic cough gets put down to asthma, but actually only 10 to 15 percent of people with a chronic cough have asthma.”

These patients are likely to have prescriptions for steroid inhalers which are not without health risks. Side effects from long-term use of steroid inhalers include osteoporosis, oral thrush, and inhibited growth in children and adolescents. GERD patients who have been misdiagnosed with asthma are also at risk because their digestive symptoms are not being treated. GERD can be managed with lifestyle changes and medications, but if left untreated, potential complications include esophagitis, ulcers, Barrett’s esophagus, and esophageal cancer.

Because GERD and asthma can produce similar symptoms, there is bound to be some confusion among patients and doctors. Pavord feels that one solution is to rely on diagnostic tests rather than just an evaluation of symptoms to arrive at a diagnosis. Spirometry is an office test that assesses lung function by measuring the volume and flow of air that moves in and out of your lungs. FeNO testing is another type of diagnostic test that measures nitric oxide in the breath to detect airway inflammation. The FeNO test is more accurate than spirometry, and it can help indicate which patients will benefit from steroid inhalers (Source: Daily Mail).

If you have questions or concerns about your symptoms or if you have uncertainties about your diagnosis, schedule an appointment with your doctor today. It may be necessary to order further testing or visit a specialist for a second opinion. Be confident, ask questions, and don’t give up until you have the answers you need.


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