What Appears as Uncontrolled Asthma May Actually be Severe Reflux

Breathing issues that mimic asthma often caused by reflux sending liquid into the lungs

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(DENVER, Colorado) – For most of the 25 million Americans living with asthma, symptoms can be controlled with an inhaler. But when coughing and wheezing don’t respond to medication, the problem may not be asthma at all. Experts at National Jewish Health say the cause of what appears to be uncontrolled asthma can be gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). 

     “Some reflux is normal, but sometimes the muscle that prevents stomach contents from traveling up the esophagus and into the airway does not function properly,” said Jeffrey B. King, MD, chief of the Division of Gastroenterology at National Jewish Health. “When those contents aspirate into the lungs it can cause everything from shortness of breath and coughing to pneumonia and infections.”

     Some patients are misdiagnosed with asthma for years. Addressing the true source of the issue may provide immediate relief. Treating GERD through lifestyle changes, medication or, in severe cases, surgery can drastically improve patients’ quality of life and even prevent long-term effects such as permanent lung scarring and esophageal cancer.

     “It’s not until you think about lung conditions from a multidisciplinary approach that you start looking for things such as reflux. And once you start looking for reflux, you find that it’s very common,” said Dr. King. “If an asthma patient is not responding to medications, that should set off alarm bells that some other condition may be causing their symptoms.”

     Without knowing to test for GERD, Dr. King says, the disease often goes unchecked. Reflux is not always acidic and may not come with the classic heartburn and indigestion symptoms that are commonly associated with it. Therefore, it’s important to see a specialist who can provide an accurate diagnosis and treat the root cause of lung issues.


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Michelle Skeldon takes daily medication to control reflux caused by GERD. After being treated for asthma for more than a decade, a correct diagnosis provided effective treatment and relief from severe breathing problems.

Jeffrey B. King, MD, reviews endoscopy images of a patient with severe lung and breathing issues at National Jewish Health. What is often diagnosed as uncontrolled asthma can be caused by the dysfunction of a muscle that prevents reflux from traveling up the esophagus and into the airway.

Michelle Skeldon tends her garden at her home in Littleton, Colorado. After being misdiagnosed with asthma, Michelle finally got relief from her breathing problems after being treated for GERD.

Michelle Skeldon walks with her husband, Keith, near their home in Littleton, Colorado. Not long ago, she could barely take a few steps without being out of breath. What seemed like asthma symptoms were actually caused by reflux that entered her lungs. Addressing the true cause of her lung issues immediately helped her breathe easier.

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