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Asthma Misdiagnosed More Often Than You Would Think

By Kate Merrill, WBZ-TV
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WBZ-TV's Kate Merrill Kate Merrill
Kate Merrill is an Emmy award winning journalist for WBZ-TV News. She...
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BOSTON (CBS) – It is estimated about 25 million Americans have been diagnosed with asthma. Many of those patients have been prescribed powerful drugs. There is just one problem: many of them are being treated for a condition they don’t even have.

For 15 years, Deb Bushe thought she had asthma. “I was very surprised when I was told I didn’t have asthma.” That was after having spent thousands on medications she never needed. Quitting her inhaler brought instant relief. “When I stopped, I got much better.”

Dr. Arthi Thangaraj, a pulmonary specialist at the Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Plymouth, says this happens more than most people realize. “About 30-35% of the individuals diagnosed with asthma actually don’t have asthma.”

Dr. Thangaraj believes over diagnosis of asthma is common because a primary determination is made on clinical judgment during an office exam. That first diagnosis needs to be backed up by a lung function test, according to Dr. Thangaraj. Only then can a definitive diagnosis of asthma be made.

The stakes are high for several reasons. “Wheezing is a common symptom, but all that wheezes is not asthma,” said Dr. Thangaraj. “It can be heart failure. It can be emphysema, vocal cord dysfunction, even stress.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, asthma costs the United States $50 billion a year in medical expenses. One out of 12 people is diagnosed with asthma, and that number is growing. That can add up to a lot of patients who are taking powerful drugs for no reason at all.

“The main treatment for asthma is steroids. They are inhaled steroids,” explained Dr. Thangaraj. “So you don’t want to be exposed to unnecessary treatment, and have side effects, if you don’t need them.”

Dr. Sally Wenzel, an asthma specialist, believes those drugs are handed out way too quickly. “I think it is often misdiagnosed because it is so easy to just prescribe an inhaler and say just call me if you have any problems.”

That’s what happened to Deb Bushe. She was finally diagnosed with vocal cord dysfunction.

Dr. Wenzel says there is a lesson here for all patients. “If you have breathing problems and you have been diagnosed with asthma, but you have never had a breathing test, get with your doctor and get a breathing test.”

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