Could My Lung Symptoms Be Due To A Condition Other Than Asthma?

Yes, depending, of course, on what your exact symptoms are. Medical students and physicians in specialty training are taught the skill of differential diagnosis. When reviewing and analyzing a patient’s report of symptoms, the physician generates a list of different possible conditions that could theoretically be responsible for the symptoms. That list of possible conditions is called the differential diagnosis. The physician then ranks the possibilities in order of likelihood.

The most likely, based on the information available, is listed first. The next step usually involves attempting to confirm, or “rule in” the doctor’s initial diagnostic impression by performing specific tests as needed, in addition to history taking and to the physical examination. For example, the differential diagnosis of a persistent, daily, dry cough that lasts more than 2 months in a 22-year-old non-smoking college student in otherwise excellent health might include asthma, UACS (postnasal drip), or GERD, either alone or in combination. The physician would thus initially perform an evaluation for the possibility of asthma and perhaps even prescribe asthma medication. If the results of that initial evaluation were not consistent with asthma and if the student continued to cough despite asthma treatment, then the doctor would turn his attention to the second possibility on the differential diagnosis list: postnasal drip.

A trial of appropriate medication might help in deciding if UACS (postnasal drip) were responsible for the underlying cough. If that intervention were unrewarding and cough still persisted, then the physician would turn his attention to the possibility of active GERD. You can tell from the example that elucidating the origin of a chronic cough may require several doctor visits, along with a good dose of patience! You will also recognize the advantage in consulting a clinician skilled in differential diagnosis, one with the expertise and experience to correctly assess the probability of asthma, rather than one who lists all possibilities and tries to rule in or rule out every single one. Several medical conditions are well known to mimic asthma , which sometimes makes for a challenging differential diagnosis.

Vocal cord dysfunction (VCD) syndrome, for example, exhibits symptoms similar to asthma. Specific types of heart disease, such as congestive heart failure, can be mistaken for asthma. Some physicians even use the term  cardiac asthma,a misnomer, to describe the wheezing sounds associated with congestive heart failure. Similarly, lung diseases other than asthma can be responsible for symptoms suggestive of asthma. Emphysema and chronic obstructive bronchitis can resemble asthma, but a significant history of smoking cigarettes is usually present. Pulmonary sarcoidosis can cause wheezing. Rare lung diseases like obliterative bronchiolitis or eosinophilic pneumonia are also occasionally in the differential diagnosis of asthma-like symptoms.