Reactive airway disease describes a set of symptoms that may or may not be caused by asthma. The symptoms include coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.

Sometimes the terms reactive airway disease and asthma are used interchangeably. However, there are important differences between the two.

This article explores how reactive airway disease differs from asthma, its symptoms, and potential causes. It also considers what treatments are available for reactive airway disease.

Fast facts on reactive airway disease:

  • Reactive airway disease is not a condition.
  • The term may be mistakenly used interchangeably with related conditions.
  • The symptoms are caused by a bronchial spasm.
Was this helpful?
woman wheezing with reactive airway diseaseShare on Pinterest
Reactive airway disease is a label used before a possible asthma diagnosis.

It is a term that doctors use as a placeholder for diagnosis.

Reactive airway disease is a term used to describe a set of symptoms that indicate a person is having a bronchial spasm. This is a reaction in their airway that needs further investigation.

A bronchial spasm happens when the bronchial tubes (airway) is irritated by something. This may cause:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath

Some scientists argue that the term reactive airway disease is vague and confusing. They believe that doctors should wait until they reach a diagnosis before labeling a set of symptoms.

A 2001 paper described the use of the term as having “no clinical meaning” and an “annoyance” to doctors seeking “diagnostic clarity”.

However, some doctors continue to find it useful to use the term until they have made a diagnosis.

These include asthma and reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS).

The difference between these related conditions and reactive airway disease is explored below.

Reactive airway disease vs. asthma

In pediatrics, doctors use the term reactive airway disease to describe a set of symptoms that may indicate a child has asthma.

Further tests help the doctor diagnose or rule out asthma. But it can be difficult to diagnose asthma in early childhood. Below the age of 5, tests for asthma may not give an accurate result.

Doctors may use the term reactive airway disease until they have reached an accurate diagnosis. Doctors should not use term reactive airway disease interchangeably with asthma. But sometimes this does happen.

When the term is used, it is a good idea to clarify whether further tests for asthma will be needed.

Reactive airway disease vs. RADS

Unlike reactive airway disease, which is usually ongoing, RADS is a one-off reaction.

RADS describes wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. It happens when a person’s airways are exposed to too much corrosive gas fumes or vapors.

A 2011 study found that high doses of vitamin D helped to improve symptoms of RADS.

Reactive airway disease vs. chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Reactive airway disease is sometimes used to describe symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). However, reactive airway disease and COPD are not the same.

COPD requires more involved treatment. It is a group of lung diseases that make it hard to breathe. These diseases include emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Smoking often causes COPD. As it progresses, breathing can become increasingly difficult. It is important to talk to a doctor about the best treatments for COPD.

Share on Pinterest
Reactive airway disease symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, mucus in the airways, or coughing.

Reactive airway disease is a label often used before asthma is diagnosed.

The symptoms of reactive airway disease are the same as those seen in asthma. They indicate that the airways have been irritated and include:

  • coughing
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • breathing difficulties
  • mucus in the airways
  • swelling of the airway lining
  • hypersensitive airways

Like asthma, reactive airway disease often develops after a person has had an infection.

This is when the airways overreact to an irritant, which leads to swelling. Swelling causes the airway to narrow making breathing harder.

Some things that may irritate the airways on their own or when combined include:

  • pet hair
  • smoke
  • dust
  • pollen
  • stress
  • perfume
  • changes in weather
  • mold
  • exercise

Smoking cigarettes irritates the airways and damages the lungs.

If a person smokes, they risk developing reactive airway disease. Continually irritating the airways through smoking increases the risk of later developing COPD, which is not curable.

Lifelong smokers have a 50 percent chance of developing COPD.

Share on Pinterest
If reactive airway disease is later diagnosed as asthma, then an inhaler may be recommended as treatment.

If reactive airway disease is later diagnosed as asthma, then the doctor will recommend treatments to manage this.

This typically involves taking medication to control symptoms in the long-term and using an inhaler to relieve attacks.

If a person has reactive airway disease but the underlying cause is unknown, the best way to reduce symptoms is to avoid the irritant. Allergy medication, such as antihistamines, may also help.

If stress is a trigger, then learning to reduce the effects of this through meditation, relaxation, or breathing exercises may help.

An inhaler may also help reduce symptoms brought on by exercise.

If a person experiences regular coughing or wheezing, they should speak to a doctor to determine the cause.

If a person is having breathing difficulties, this may be a medical emergency. It is a good idea to contact emergency services so that they can receive treatment as soon as possible.

Once a doctor has diagnosed the underlying condition causing reactive airway disease, symptoms can be managed with the right treatment.

Asthma can be treated with medication in the long-term and inhalers to manage attacks.

If a child has reactive airway disease, it is important to rule out or diagnose asthma. This helps to ensure their condition can be properly managed.