New Test May Catch Asthma Early

Asthma may be detected in children with spirometry test before any symptoms appear

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Jennifer Gershman, PharmD, CPh

(RxWiki News) A new diagnostic tool may help millions of Americans breathe a little easier.

A recent study from the University of Missouri School of Medicine (UMSM) found that a commonly used lung function test, called a spirometry test, may be able to detect asthma in children — before any symptoms of the disease appear.

According to researchers, this finding could lead to earlier diagnosis and potentially reduce the number of patients who face serious asthma complications later in life.

"This could mean a big difference in catching the disease before serious health problems start," said study author Peter Konig, MD, a professor of child health at UMSM and a pediatric pulmonary disease specialist, in a press release. "When the disease is still in the small airways, it tends to not show symptoms. By the time the disease gets to the large airways, patients typically cough, wheeze and experience shortness of breath."

Asthma is a chronic lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways. This can cause recurring periods of wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing.

While asthma can affect people of all ages, it most often starts during childhood. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), more than 25 million people have asthma in the US — and about 7 million of those people are children.

Typically, patients with respiratory diseases like asthma are given a spirometry test to measure the airflow in different parts of the lungs (the large and small bronchi).

For this study, Dr. Konig and team looked at the results of more than 2,300 spirometry tests.

These researchers found that the part of the spirometry test that measures airflow in the small bronchi may detect asthma earlier than the more commonly used part of the test that measures airflow in the large bronchi.

Most asthma cases were also found to begin in the small bronchi before moving up to the large bronchi.

"All of the information we need to diagnose asthma is there: It is just a matter of not ignoring some of these numbers, even if the patient isn’t showing symptoms," Dr. Konig said. "If you look at the small airway test, you can detect asthma before it worsens, and that means treatment starts earlier and results from the treatment are better."

Although asthma is a manageable disease, more than 3,500 people die each year from asthma-related complications, according to the NHLBI.

An earlier diagnosis can cut the time it takes to get asthma under control — reducing the number of patients at risk of serious health complications.

Dr. Konig and team said they hope to use this information to determine whether earlier detection is also beneficial for patients with cystic fibrosis (an inherited disease that can affect the lungs).

This study was published recently in the Journal of Asthma.

Information on funding sources and conflicts of interest was not available at the time of publication.

Review Date: 
October 21, 2015
Last Updated:
October 26, 2015