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What is Reactive Airway Disease?


Updated May 15, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

Question: What is Reactive Airway Disease?
Answer: Your doctor may diagnose you with reactive airway disease the first time you wheeze. Some doctors use the term as a synonym for asthma, while others use it as a term before an exact diagnosis is made. You could be said to have a reactive airway disease if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms:

What Is Going On In My Lungs During A Reactive Airway Disease Episode?

In reactive airway disease, three primary changes are taking place in your lungs:

  • Increased Mucus: Your airways become irritated and inflamed, causing the cells in your airways to produce mucus. The thick mucus produced can clog the airways of your lung, making it difficult to breathe.

  • Inflammation and Swelling: Just as your arm swells from the irritation of being stung by a bee or wasp, airways of your lungs swell and become inflamed during an episode.

  • Muscle Tightening: The smooth muscles in the airways of your lungs tighten and the airways become smaller, making it more difficult to breathe.

The narrowing of the airways and subsequent symptoms may occur suddenly, or may develop more gradually. The symptoms of reactive airway disease may range from very mild to very severe.

What Else Could It Be?

While your doctor will surely consider asthma if you are showing symptoms of reactive airway disease, a number of other diagnoses will also be considered. Your doctor will talk to you about your symptoms and possibly do lab or other tests.

Other diseases that may produce reactive airway disease symptoms:

Reactive Airway Disease Treatments

Depending on your symptoms and what your doctor believes your diagnosis to be, there are a number of different potential treatments. These could include:


Fahy JV, O'Bryne PM. Reactive Airways Disease - A Lazy Term of Uncertain Meaning That Should Be Abandoned. Am. J. Respir. Crit. Care Med., Volume 163, Number 4, March 2001, 822-823.

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