Updated 30 October 2017

The dangers of undiagnosed asthma

Undiagnosed and untreated asthma can get worse over time and in extreme cases lead to death.

Doctors don't have one specific test to diagnosed asthma in children or adults.

Shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing and chest tightness can be confused with other respiratory illnesses, and as a result asthma may go untreated. Asthma symptoms may also overlap with other health and respiratory illnesses.

Another problem with diagnosing asthma is that symptoms may not be present at the time of diagnosis. Asthma symptoms may lie dormant for weeks and sometimes for months, making diagnosis a real challenge.

Lack of treatment

The main problem with undiagnosed or misdiagnosed asthma is that the condition remains untreated, which means that it can get worse over time. A severe asthma attack can sometimes lead to death.

Undiagnosed and untreated asthma may also lead to an increased risk of lung scarring and permanent damage.

Research has shown that undiagnosed asthma can lead to the following complications in both children and adults:

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What are the early warning signs of asthma?

The severity of symptoms may vary from person to person, but early symptoms include:

  • Cough – often worse at night or early in the morning
  • Wheezing – a whistling or squeaky sound when you breathe
  • Chest tightness
  • Shortness of breath – the feeling of being out of breath
  • Difficulty sleeping – coughing at night makes it hard to sleep

Symptoms may become severe over time if not detected and treated at an early stage. The best way to diagnose asthma is by taking a family history, and conducting a lung function test and physical examination.


Ask the Expert

Asthma Expert

Professor Keertan Dheda has received of several prestigious awards including the 2014 Oppenheimer Award, and has published over 160 peer-reviewed papers and holds 3 patents related to new TB diagnostic or infection control technologies. He serves on the editorial board of the journals PLoS One, the International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease, American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Medicine, Lancet Respiratory Diseases and Nature Scientific Reports, amongst others.Read his full biography at the University of Cape Town Lung Institute

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