Asthma can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are sometimes similar to other lung conditions. Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done. The doctor will listen to your lungs.
In addition, the following tests may be performed:
Pulmonary function tests (PFTs) are done using an instrument known as a spirometer. The spirometer measures how much air is inhaled and expelled as you breathe. This test will measure both the amount and the rate of air that can pass through your airways.
The diagnosis of asthma is usually made when reversible lung airway obstruction is detected with PFTs. Lung obstruction means that the air passes too slowly through the airways. When the obstruction is corrected after you are given an inhaled dose of rescue medication, the obstruction is called reversible. At this point if the symptoms have been chronic, asthma is typically diagnosed. Your diagnosis may be reactive airway disease if the symptoms have been there for only a short time.
A peak flow meter measures the fastest rate at which you expel air. Peak flow meters can be used at home to assess if the degree of airway obstruction indicates an asthma attack will soon occur or that your medication may need to be changed.
People with asthma will have a mild constriction of the airways when the drug methacholine is inhaled. If asthma is suspected, but there are no obvious symptoms of airflow obstruction on PFTs, methacholine is given and the tests are done again. The diagnosis of asthma is usually made if the PFTs indicate lung airway obstruction during a provocation test.
You may have allergy tests if allergic asthma is suspected. A tiny allergen particle is placed under the skin with a needle. In the majority of cases, an allergic response is confirmed if the skin becomes raised or red within 20 minutes. Under some circumstances, the less accurate radioallergosorbent (RAST) test can be used to detect allergic responses.
Peak Flow Meter
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Asthma exacerbation in adults and adolescents. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114076/Asthma-exacerbation-in-adults-and-adolescents. Updated October 2, 2014. Accessed September 30, 2016.
Asthma exacerbation in children. EBSCO DynaMed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T241915/Asthma-exacerbation-in-children. Updated January 20, 2016. Accessed September 30, 2016.
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Fonseca J, Costa-Pereira A, Delgado L, et al. Pulmonary function electronic monitoring devices: a randomized agreement study. Chest. 2005;128(3):1258-1265.
National Asthma Education and Prevention Program: Expert panel report III: Guidelines for the diagnosis and management of asthma. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: http://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/guidelines/asthma/asthgdln.htm. Accessed August 14, 2015.
Last reviewed September 2016 by Michael Woods, MD
Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.
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