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Difference Between Asthma and Reactive Airway Disease

Asthma is a chronic condition in which there is an inflammation of the breathing passages. Reactive airway disease is an acute condition in which the breathing passages are irritated for some reason.


What is Asthma?


Asthma refers to the condition in which the bronchi become narrower due to an inflammatory response. This is a chronic condition that requires long-term treatment and management.


Asthmatics have typical symptoms such as coughing, wheezing and a feeling of having a very tight chest. People with asthma may also have a hard time breathing, which can worsen if not treated rapidly.


The diagnosis of asthma is due to the results from a clinical exam and tests of how well the lungs are functioning. Blood tests may indicate elevated levels of eosinophils and spirometry and lung challenge tests may show compromised airflow.


There are multiple factors that are thought to interact to cause asthma, and it is thought that genetics may play a role in addition to the environment. Diet and allergens may also be important and may interact with a person’s genes to make them vulnerable for developing asthma.

Risk factors and complications:

A family history of asthma is a risk factor because genetics are important as a potential causative factor.  Being exposed to irritants and allergens via the workplace or through habits such as smoking are also risk factors, and so is being significantly overweight or obese. A person may need to go to the hospital for treatment since asthma can prove deadly without prompt treatment.

Prevention and treatment:

Avoiding triggers such as allergens and irritants can help to prevent asthma attacks. It is also good if a person gets the flu vaccine every year to prevent respiratory infection that can make asthma likely to worsen. Treatment of asthma often requires inhaled medicine, such as bronchodilators, to open the airways. Corticosteroids can also help to reduce the inflammatory response.


What is Reactive Airway Disease?


Reactive airway disease describes the condition in which a person’s bronchial passages overreact to some substance. This is not a chronic condition and usually only happens for a short time period.


Symptoms are often similar to a person who has asthma, and often includes wheezing, shortness of breath, coughing, too much mucus in the passages and irritation of the mucous membrane lining the bronchi and bronchioles.


Diagnosis is based on a physical examination and elimination of other possible specific conditions such that the general term “reactive airway disease” is used. It is possible that a patient with reactive airway disease who continues to have symptoms will later be diagnosed with asthma. Usually, reactive airway disease is an acute condition that does not last once the irritants or other causes have been established and irritants have been eliminated or avoided. The term is also often used for children younger than 5 years where a definitive diagnosis of asthma cannot be accurately made.


The condition can happen shortly after an infection and it can be in response to some type of irritating substance such as pet dander, pollen, mold, smoke, dust, or even a change in the weather. Studies have found a link between children who have had respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and the development of reactive airway disease, and further research has also found a link between Chlamydia pneumoniae infections and reactive airway disease.

Risk factors and complications:

Risk factors for reactive airway disease are a prior infection and exposure to irritants. Complications include the development of asthma or bronchiolitis.

Prevention and treatment:

The best way to prevent reactive airway disease is to avoid exposure to the substance or substances that cause the irritation and the symptoms. In some cases, an inhaler can help to alleviate the wheezing and problems with the bronchial passages.


Difference between Asthma and Reactive Airway Disease?


Asthma is a condition in which there is an inflammatory response of the airways. Reactive airway disease is a general term to describe some condition in which the bronchial tubes and air passages are irritated.

Duration of the condition

Asthma is always a long-lasting and chronic disorder that does not go away. Reactive airway disease usually only happens once, and thus is classified as an acute condition.


The tests used to diagnose asthma include spirometry, lung challenge tests, and blood tests looking at eosinophil concentrations. Usually, reactive airway disease is diagnosed by the physical symptoms the patient has.

Age when diagnosis can be made

Asthma is difficult to accurately diagnose before the age of 5 years. Reactive airway disease can be diagnosed or used as a term to describe the condition and symptoms when a person is younger than 5 years or at any age.


Treatment for asthma frequently requires the use of bronchodilators, inhalers, and corticosteroids. Treatment for reactive airway disease includes the elimination of irritants and sometimes the use of inhalers.

Table comparing Asthma and Reactive Airway Disease


Summary of Asthma Vs. Reactive Airway Disease

  • Asthma and reactive airway disease both have similar symptoms such as wheezing.
  • Asthma is a chronic condition that is best diagnosed after age 5.
  • Reactive airway disease is a general term to describe irritation of the airways and can be used to describe illness in children under 5 years of age when an asthma diagnosis is difficult.
  • Both conditions of asthma and reactive airway disease can be treated with inhalers which help with breathing.


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1 Comment

  1. I find it confusing, as a 57 year old white female, with asthma, the initial diagnosis to the current diagnosis’. My Surgeon has told me my lungs go to sleep when it d I , or am under anesthesia. so I need to jump start my lungs when it wake up. Now, at 6 months of age I almost didn’t survive pneumonia. 2 weeks of every winter since. I’m down,just gasping for air. is it Asthma, bronchitis, COPD, or what?. yes sudden asthma attacks hit me. chronic mucous. I’ve learned how to clear it. Not very lady like, but necessary. in know w/out a rescue inhale. I will die from an attack.

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References :

[0]Emre, Umit, et al. "The association of Chlamydia pneumoniae infection and reactive airway disease in children." Archives of pediatrics & adolescent medicine 148.7 (1994): 727-732.

[1]Ortega, Victor E and Emily J. Pennington. “Asthma”.  Merckmanuals. Merck & Co., 2017, https://www.msdmanuals.com/professional/pulmonary-disorders/asthma-and-related-disorders/asthma

[2]Sigurs, Nele. "Epidemiologic and clinical evidence of a respiratory syncytial virus–reactive airway disease link." American journal of respiratory and critical care medicine 163.supplement_1 (2001): S2-S6.

[3]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Asthma_patient_taking_medication_using_an_inhaler.png

[4]Image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Asthma_(Lungs).png

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