Reactive airway disease, also known as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), is a respiratory condition characterized by wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. It is sometimes confused with asthma, a related condition, but there are some important distinctions between asthma and reactive airway disease which can have a profound impact on treatment approaches. Some clinicians oppose the use of the term “reactive airway disease,” arguing that it gets used as a catch all which can inhibit a proper diagnosis.
People with reactive airway disease generally develop respiratory symptoms after exposure to an irritant which causes inflammation in their respiratory tracts. For example, someone may start coughing and wheezing in the wake of a serious wildfire, as a result of irritation caused by the smoke and particulates. Typically, mucus production is increased, which leads to additional inflammation and discomfort for the patient. The irritation to the airways leads to a chronic syndrome of symptoms.
Doctors may also diagnose young children with RADS when they experience symptoms such as wheezing and coughing because it is difficult to diagnose asthma at a young age. Rather than assuming that a child has asthma and putting him or her on a regimen of asthma drugs, the doctor may approach the situation from a perspective which involves addressing the inflammation and discomfort until additional tests can be used to determine whether or not the child has asthma.
The key difference between asthma and reactive airway disease is that people with asthma fit a specific profile, which includes certain diagnostic criteria. Individuals with RADS may experience the same symptoms as asthmatics, but their condition does not have a known cause, and it may not be alleviated with the use of asthma drugs. It usually takes just a single exposure for reactive airway disease to develop, and people with this condition experience less sensitivity to environmental pollutants than asthmatics.
Because RADS is sometimes used as a quick diagnosis for a patient in lieu of further investigation, patients may want to see a respiratory specialist or ask their doctors for additional information if they are diagnosed with this condition. Adults should receive pulmonary function tests which can be used to distinguish between reactive airway disease and asthma, and additional diagnostic tools can also be used on children to explore the cause of the respiratory syndrome. Failure to get a proper diagnosis for a respiratory condition can lead to long term problems and delays in treatment.