Updated 28 March 2017

A third of asthma patients may be misdiagnosed

Asthma is one of the most common respiratory diseases in the world, but diagnosis isn’t as straightforward as one might think.

The definition of asthma is simple, but the condition is actually quite complex and diagnosis isn’t as straightforward as one might think.

Symptoms of asthma come and go and you might only experience some of them, making it difficult to be certain if you have asthma or not.

The Global Initiative for Asthma (GINA) rates South Africa as having the world’s fourth highest asthma death rate among five- to 35-year-olds. Of the estimated 3.9 million South Africans with asthma, 1.5% die of this condition annually. But could some of these people be misdiagnosed?

Canadian study

From January 2012 to February 2016 a study was conducted in 10 Canadian cities to determine if current asthma could be ruled out and asthma medications safely stopped in some adult patients who had been diagnosed by physicians as suffering from asthma. 

Of 1 026 potential participants 613 completed the study and could be conclusively evaluated for a diagnosis of current asthma. After thorough testing that involved gradual tapering off of medication it was found that current asthma could be ruled out in 203 of the 613 participants (33.1%).

Twelve participants had serious conditions that had been previously misdiagnosed as asthma, and after an additional 12 months, 181 participants (29.5%) continued to exhibit no evidence of asthma.

Diagnosis not so straightforward

It is important to note that only a doctor can diagnose asthma as there are other conditions that need to be ruled out before a definite diagnosis of asthma can be made.

According to the Asthma Society of Canada, depending on your circumstance, your doctor will evaluate some or all of the following:

  • Your medical history
  • Your family history
  • Your symptoms, their frequency and the effect medication has on them
  • The presence of allergies
  • The things or situations that trigger your asthma symptoms
  • Your lung function. This will be tested by means of tests like peak flow monitoring and spirometry to determine how quickly you can expel air.

Conditions that may be mistaken for asthma

A few of the conditions that may be mistaken for asthma are:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD
  • Pneumonia
  • Allergies
  • Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)
  • Heart attack  
  • Panic attacks

Read more:

Asthma attack

Who gets asthma? (Prevalence)

Debunking asthma myths


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

Still have a question?

Get free advice from our panel of experts

The information provided does not constitute a diagnosis of your condition. You should consult a medical practitioner or other appropriate health care professional for a physical exmanication, diagnosis and formal advice. Health24 and the expert accept no responsibility or liability for any damage or personal harm you may suffer resulting from making use of this content.

* You must accept our condition

Forum Rules