Reactive airway disease (RAD) isn’t an official condition. Rather, it’s a term healthcare providers use to describe asthma-like breathing problems when they don’t know the exact cause. Symptoms include coughing and wheezing. Proper treatment depends on an official diagnosis.
“Reactive airway disease” (RAD) is a term that healthcare providers use to describe breathing symptoms that are similar to asthma, but they’re not sure of the exact cause. Your symptoms develop when the tubes that carry air to and from your lungs (bronchial tubes) swell, which causes narrowing of them. This makes it difficult for air to move into and out of your lungs, resulting in difficulty breathing.
Reactive airway disease isn’t the same as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS). The names, acronyms and symptoms are similar, but it’s important to keep them separate.
RAD isn’t an official clinical diagnosis, and it doesn’t have a precise definition. There’s controversy in the medical community over its use because some providers use the terms RAD and asthma interchangeably, but they don’t have the same meaning. Its use should be limited to being a placeholder term until providers can make an official diagnosis.
Reactive airway disease symptoms include:
If a provider describes your condition as RAD, your chest may feel tight and it may be difficult to breathe.
The following may trigger symptoms that healthcare providers label as RAD:
It depends on the underlying cause of your symptoms. Once a healthcare provider makes an official diagnosis, they can prescribe medicine or recommend treatment to relieve your symptoms. They’ll detail when you can expect to feel better.
It depends on the cause. Talk to a healthcare provider about your symptoms. They can give you an idea of what to expect after making an official diagnosis.
A healthcare provider may use the term reactive airway disease for anyone who has breathing problems without a clear cause. However, providers are most likely to describe breathing and airway symptoms as RAD in infants and children who are too young to take a lung function test.
Talk to a healthcare provider if you or your child have symptoms that affect your breathing or if you have a cough that won’t go away. They’ll ask you about your symptoms and medical history. They’ll also conduct a physical examination. During the physical exam, they’ll listen to your lungs with a stethoscope (auscultation). A stethoscope is a medical device with a small, metal disc (diaphragm) that connects to earpieces with rubber tubing. They’ll also order tests to help them confirm their diagnosis.
To help determine the cause of your breathing problems, a healthcare provider may order the following tests:
Reactive airway disease treatment depends on an official diagnosis. In an emergency setting, providers may use:
It depends. Albuterol (Accuneb®) is a type of bronchodilator that helps open up your airways if you have asthma, COPD and exercise-induced bronchospasm. It may not treat other RAD causes.
The best way to lower your risk of RAD is to:
If a healthcare provider says you have RAD, it means you have breathing problems, but they aren’t sure of the cause. They’ll conduct a physical exam and tests to help determine the cause of your breathing issues so you can get proper treatment.
They may also refer you to a healthcare provider who specializes in conditions that affect your lungs (pulmonologist).
If a healthcare provider describes your symptoms as RAD, your treatment, recovery and management depend on an official diagnosis. Some conditions are treatable, while others may progressively get worse.
See your healthcare provider if you have symptoms of reactive airway disease or if your symptoms don’t improve with treatment.
Call your local emergency number or get to an emergency room right away if you’re using a lot of energy to breathe (severe respiratory distress), aren’t responding to breathing treatments, have low oxygen levels or notice anaphylaxis symptoms, including:
People sometimes use the terms “reactive airway disease/RAD” and “asthma” interchangeably, but they don’t have the same meaning. Asthma is a chronic condition that irritates and narrows your airways. It may also cause extra mucus production. Reactive airway disease is a placeholder term providers use to indicate that something is affecting your airways, but they aren’t sure of the exact cause.
Healthcare providers may sometimes describe COPD symptoms as reactive airway disease. But they’re not the same. COPD is an umbrella term for chronic (long-lasting) lung conditions that affect your ability to breathe and progressively get worse. Providers may describe a condition — including COPD — as RAD until they can make an official diagnosis.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Reactive airway disease isn’t an official diagnosis, but it doesn’t mean a healthcare provider is inaccurate if they use the term to describe your symptoms. It means that an unidentified condition is affecting your breathing, and they can’t make an official diagnosis until they can safely perform testing. If a primary care provider can’t diagnose your condition, ask them to refer you to a pulmonologist.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 01/27/2023.
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