Healthbeat Report: Easy Breathing

March 4, 2010 8:44:08 PM PST
Many asthma patients will tell you their disorder is scary because even when they think it's under control. An attack hits leaving them gasping for air.

A newer non- invasive test could help patients and doctors gain better control by providing some hard to get information about what's really going on with their airways.

"My breathing is not wheezing. You don't hear that sound when air goes in and out anymore. I'm able to do things with the children," said David Hernandez, asthma patient.

But until recently it wasn't easy for Hernandez to keep up with his active family. The 56-year-old has adult on-set asthma and he knows how maddening it can be to try to get the disorder under control.

He's tried more than a dozen medications over the years but the asthma attacks continued. The mystery? What was causing the wheezing and infections. Allergies were suspected but finding the trigger was tricky.

Doctors at Rush University Medical Center enlisted the help of this new device. It's kind of like a breathalyzer for asthma that looks like a video game. Just breath in and this measures something called exhaled nitric oxide. It's a gas normally produced by the body but high levels in your breath can mean your airways are inflamed. And it's this inflammation doctors say that can reveal so much about asthma.

The hope is it may help doctors better determine who really has asthma what may be causing it and whether a medication is actually working.

"We believe it is the least invasive tool that has been developed for us to judge when someone has an allergic component to their asthma and whether it's under good control," said Dr. Mary Kay Tobin, asthma specialist, Rush University Medical Center.

For example, even if a patient is feeling good the machine could detect the slightest inflammation, a sign that all may not be well. Doctors could then adjust medication or switch to something else.

Joshua Williams' asthma tends to act up with little warning. Doctors say this test confirmed that the inflammation in his lungs was not controlled and that he needed more medication.

"We are finding that they think they have it under control and they don't and it's really helpful to view to show then that," said Williams.

But not all asthma experts are embracing this new technology just yet. There are concerns it's still not proven and there are questions about accuracy.

"It's a start I don't think it's perfect but it's better than anything we currently have," said Maureen Damitz, Respiratory Health Association of Metropolitan Chicago. "We do need better testing so any progress we can make in this area is always an improvement."

Doctors determined Hernandez was suffering from lung inflammation and a sinus infection due to his allergic reaction to mold. They say the test helped with the diagnosis and he was prescribed an anti-fungal which seemed to do the trick.

"Many times it can confirm what you are thinking but there have been people where it really changes the way I think about what is going on with them and I think about trying different medication than I originally thought of," said Damitz.

Only a few centers are currently using the device. And those who do stress it is not a stand alone test. It is just one of several tools being used to help make a thorough evaluation of asthma.