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Breathe Easy: How Doctors Diagnose Asthma

July 10, 2017
Published in: General

A man holding his chest while speaking with a doctor

Few medical symptoms are scarier than compromised breathing. If you are experiencing recurring symptoms that effect your breathing, you may want to be tested for asthma. Asthma occurs when your airways swell and become narrow making it difficult to breathe.

Common triggers include:

  • Allergic reactions to things like pollen, mold, or animals
  • Environmental irritants such as smoke, chemicals, and air pollution
  • Medications
  • Exercise
  • Stress

These triggers can cause asthma symptoms such as:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Chest tightness

These symptoms are also present in many other illnesses. So how does your doctor know if you have asthma or something else? Here's what you can expect when being tested for asthma:

First Things First

A female patient explaining her symptoms to her doctor

As a first step, your doctor will get a thorough history of your health and symptoms. Be prepared to answer these questions:

  • What are your symptoms?
  • When do your symptoms occur?
  • Do you smoke?
  • What is your occupation?
  • Are you exposed environmental irritants?
  • Do you have allergies?
  • Does your family have a history of asthma?
  • What medicines do you take?
  • Do you have pets?
  • What have you noticed that triggers your symptoms?

Your doctor will also perform a physical exam. The physical exam includes listening to your lungs, checking your breathing, and examining your skin for allergic reactions.

How Well Are Your Lungs Working?

Illustration of the lungs

Doctors use several tests to find out how well your lungs are working. Another term for this testing is pulmonary function. Pulmonary simply means "pertaining to your lungs." The most common tests for asthma are:


This test measures the amount of air you exhale and how quickly you exhale. Your doctor will have you take a deep breath and breathe hard into a tube. The tube connects to a spirometer that measures airflow.

Challenge Test

Sometimes to diagnose asthma, it's necessary to trigger the symptoms. For instance, your doctor may ask you to do a physical activity if exercise triggers your symptoms. In some cases, patients are asked to inhale a substance that narrows their airways. Another spirometry test is given and compared to the first results.

Exhaled Nitric Oxide Test

Your doctor may have you breathe into a machine to measure your nitric oxide levels. High levels of nitric oxide in your body is a sign that you may have asthma.

It is often difficult to diagnose asthma. Many other illnesses have similar symptoms. Often if a person has asthma, they also have other conditions that make their asthma worse.

To get a better understanding of your health, your doctor may do other tests such as:

  • Allergy tests
  • Blood tests
  • Reflux assessment
  • Chest x-rays
  • Sinus testing
  • Lung scans
  • Lung mucus testing

If you are experiencing symptoms of asthma, it's important to schedule an appointment with your doctor. Our Pulmonology & Critical Care Team offers support for patients with respiratory and lung illnesses, including asthma. Contact us at (540) 245-7190.