WASHINGTON - Asthma is often controlled with an inhaler, or, sometimes, with medication. When neither works, it might be that the patient doesn't have asthma at all. Researchers have found another disease with the same symptoms as asthma that actually starts in the stomach.
For more than a decade, Michelle Skeldon kept getting stronger and stronger medications for asthma as her breathing became more and more difficult.
"Just to walk up maybe five steps, you know, it was extremely hard for me and it was hard to breathe. And at one point I was actually on oxygen," she said.
After a serious case of pneumonia, Skeldon's lung specialist sent her to see Dr. Jeffrey King, a gastroenterologist at National Jewish Health in Denver, Colorado.
"What we try to do is take a step back and say, 'Is there a root cause of those lung symptoms? And is it possible that this isn't asthma?'"she asked.
Tests showed Skeldon's stomach acid was flowing back into her esophagus, the tube that connects the mouth and the stomach. King says she did not have asthma.
"It is very common for us to see people here at National Jewish Health who have come to us with a diagnosis of asthma. And once we put them through formal pulmonary testing, we actually find that they probably don't have asthma at all," he said.
Some reflux is normal. But, when the contents of the stomach travel up the esophagus and into the back of the throat, the liquid can flow into the airway and enter the lungs.
"That can cause a slew of symptoms including cough, hoarseness, shortness of breath, pneumonias," he said.
What Skeldon had was gastroesophageal reflux disease, often called by its acronym "GERD." Risk factors for GERD can include obesity or pregnancy. Smoking, eating fatty or fried foods, and drinking coffee or alcohol can increase the symptoms.
Losing weight or making other lifestyle changes can help. So can medication or even surgery, which Skeldon had, to prevent her stomach contents from reaching her lungs.
"As soon as I had the surgery done, it was a totally different world. You know, the coughing stopped. It was amazing. It was like night and day," she said.
Left untreated, GERD can lead to permanent lung damage or even esophageal cancer. King says GERD is something to be taken seriously.
"If a patient is having more and more symptoms, is requiring more and more medications, and/or is not responding to those medications as well as they previously did, that should set off alarm bells that some other condition may be causing their symptoms," he said.
Skeldon is relieved that her life is once again back to normal with no shortness of breath.