Monday, April 12, 2010

New Health Care Technology can “Sniff Out” Asthma

A new machine can “sniff out” asthma, leading to more accurate diagnosis and better health care outcomes.

Those with asthma, and their health care providers, know how drawn out the diagnostic process can be. First come the multiple colds and upper-respiratory infections, then the doctors’ visits and specialist referrals, then a bunch of lung function tests that involved exhaling to the point of passing out. It can take weeks for health care providers to puzzle out a diagnosis, months if you include all those colds and infections the adult-onset patient endures before realizing something more serious is in play.

The days of waiting might be coming to an end. Italian health care researchers have announced the development of an electronic breath-sensor device that may be more accurate in diagnosing new asthma cases than traditional diagnostic tools. The device, which health care researchers have called the “electronic nose,” detected nearly 90 percent of people with asthma compared to about 70 percent who were accurately diagnosed using the more common lung function tests. The “electronic nose” works by identifying certain compounds in a person’s exhaled breath. These compounds produce specific patterns in people with asthma. The Italian health care researchers studied 27 people with mild, allergy-based asthma and 24 healthy people. The research was published in the April issue of the journal Chest.

The “electronic nose” sounds intriguing. Asthma used to be a fairly unusual health care condition that many sufferers eventually outgrew. Not so anymore. The respiratory condition has been building in frequency and durability in recent decades, and ranks as a common ailment. Much of the increase may be environmental; the Rand Corporation has estimated in a different study that air pollution caused nearly 30,000 emergency hospital visits and admissions from 2005 to 2007 in California. Almost eight percent of Americans have asthma, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, so finding a quick and accurate tool to diagnose the condition appears to be a good thing. But the electronic nose is likely a good ways away from appearing in a health care provider’s office near you. The practical costs are not yet known, and it’s not yet clear how well the device could work with people whose asthma isn’t allergy-related.

Don’t even think about trying to diagnose yourself. But if spring-time pollen is delivering some of the typical asthma symptoms below, the good folks at the National Institutes of Health suggest it might be time to talk to your doctor.

  • Coughing. Coughing from asthma is often worse at night or early in the morning, making it hard to sleep.
  • Wheezing. Wheezing is a whistling or squeaky sound that occurs when you breathe.
  • Chest tightness. This may feel like something is squeezing or sitting on your chest.
  • Shortness of breath. Some people who have asthma say they can’t catch their breath or they feel out of breath.

Photo Credit:
Mark Watson

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