Reactive Airway Disease

Medically reviewed by Daniel Murrell, MD on August 17, 2017Written by Diana K. Wells on August 17, 2017

Overview

Reactive airway disease (RAD) is not a clinical term. Its use is somewhat controversial among medical professionals. This is because it doesn’t have a clear definition and may be used to describe different conditions. People with reactive airway disease have bronchial tubes that overreact to some sort of irritant. The term is most commonly used to describe a person who is wheezing or having a bronchial spasm, but who has not yet been diagnosed with asthma.

Reactive airway disease and asthma

There are some medical professionals who use the term in the same way they use the term asthma. The two are very similar. However, the term reactive airway disease is commonly used as a placeholder until the diagnosis of asthma can be made.

It’s used more often for young children, as it can be difficult to use the usual diagnostic methods for asthma in children who are younger than 5. Therefore, doctors use RAD as the diagnosis until that time. It’s important to have something in a child’s medical records showing possible asthma. However, doctors don’t want to label it as asthma until that diagnosis can be confirmed.

Reactive airway disease is not the same as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS). Even though the symptoms are similar, the causes are different. RADS is caused by excessive exposure to some sort of corrosive gas, its fumes, or its vapors. RADS also usually occurs just one time and is not chronic.

Conditions included in this group of diseases

Anytime you have difficulty breathing from your bronchial tubes, swelling, and overreaction to an irritant, it can be referred to as reactive airway disease. It’s usually the term used prior to an actual diagnosis of asthma. Reactive airway disease may also sometimes be used when discussing COPD. Whether this term should be used interchangeably with asthma or COPD is debated among some medical professionals.

Symptoms

The symptoms of reactive airway disease are similar to those of asthma. These symptoms may include:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • excess mucus in the bronchial tube
  • swollen mucous membrane in the bronchial tube
  • hypersensitive bronchial tubes

Causes and risk factors

Reactive airway disease, like asthma, occurs most often after you’ve had an infection. It’s caused by some irritant that triggers the airways to overreact and swell or narrow. Some causes or irritants may include:

  • pet hair or dander
  • dust
  • pollen
  • smoke
  • mold or mildew
  • exercise
  • stress
  • perfume or other strong odors
  • changes in the weather

Sometimes, a combination of two or more irritants can cause a reaction, but those same irritants alone will not.

Treatment options

Avoiding the irritants that trigger your RAD is the best treatment. However, avoiding the irritants is not always possible or practical.

The right treatment for you depends on your trigger and how severe your reactions to it are. Some reactions can be controlled by allergy medications that should be taken regularly. Other treatment options may include:

  • using breathing and relaxation exercises (if your trigger is stress)
  • treating an infection or virus
  • using a rescue inhaler (effective for symptoms that are exercise-induced)

When to see your doctor

Any time you have difficulty breathing and don’t know why, you should contact a medical professional immediately.

If you need surgery for any reason, let your medical team know about your breathing trouble. Your anesthesiologist will need to make accommodations and take precautions if you are known to have any type of bronchial spasms.

Outlook

The outlook for people with reactive airway disease is good, especially once a doctor makes a firm diagnosis and determines the irritants. RAD or asthma can usually be well controlled with medications and other treatments. In young children with RAD, it’s important to try to determine if their condition is asthma or not. This will allow for proper treatment. You’ll also know what precautions to take to avoid a dangerous asthma attack in the future.

CMS Id: 130429