What is Reactive Airway Disease?

Inhaling smoke from a wildfire can lead to reactive airway disease.
Coughing is common with reactive airway disease.
Reactive airway disease can cause problems including shortness of breath.
Wheezing may be detected through the use of a stethoscope.
A chest X-ray can be used to diagnose reactive airway disease in patients.
The human respiratory system.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 28 July 2015
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Reactive airway disease, also known as reactive airways dysfunction syndrome (RADS), is a respiratory condition characterized by wheezing, shortness of breath, and coughing. It is sometimes confused with asthma, a related condition, but there are some important distinctions between asthma and reactive airway disease which can have a profound impact on treatment approaches. Some clinicians oppose the use of the term “reactive airway disease,” arguing that it gets used as a catch all which can inhibit a proper diagnosis.

People with reactive airway disease generally develop respiratory symptoms after exposure to an irritant which causes inflammation in their respiratory tracts. For example, someone may start coughing and wheezing in the wake of a serious wildfire, as a result of irritation caused by the smoke and particulates. Typically, mucus production is increased, which leads to additional inflammation and discomfort for the patient. The irritation to the airways leads to a chronic syndrome of symptoms.

Doctors may also diagnose young children with RADS when they experience symptoms such as wheezing and coughing because it is difficult to diagnose asthma at a young age. Rather than assuming that a child has asthma and putting him or her on a regimen of asthma drugs, the doctor may approach the situation from a perspective which involves addressing the inflammation and discomfort until additional tests can be used to determine whether or not the child has asthma.


The key difference between asthma and reactive airway disease is that people with asthma fit a specific profile, which includes certain diagnostic criteria. Individuals with RADS may experience the same symptoms as asthmatics, but their condition does not have a known cause, and it may not be alleviated with the use of asthma drugs. It usually takes just a single exposure for reactive airway disease to develop, and people with this condition experience less sensitivity to environmental pollutants than asthmatics.

Because RADS is sometimes used as a quick diagnosis for a patient in lieu of further investigation, patients may want to see a respiratory specialist or ask their doctors for additional information if they are diagnosed with this condition. Adults should receive pulmonary function tests which can be used to distinguish between reactive airway disease and asthma, and additional diagnostic tools can also be used on children to explore the cause of the respiratory syndrome. Failure to get a proper diagnosis for a respiratory condition can lead to long term problems and delays in treatment.


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Post 22

I have been coughing for approximately six months and was just diagnosed with RAD about a month ago. I was given Prednisone, an extreme night time cough medicine, and an inhaler.

After taking all of this and being nearly done with the inhaler, I was feeling a lot better and barely coughing. I then went to visit my sister, who had cats. I also got a cold, and when the cold was gone I again started coughing a lot. My coughs are rough and very painful, and there tends to be an itch on one of the sides of my throat (it changes). I can't breathe and I often feel like my face is being sucked back. I usually cough

so hard I throw up.

I'm only 16 and a senior in high school and reading this is scary. I can handle it, but I can't cough so hard I throw up every day in school! My parents don't know what to do and I'm so tired of it. The thing is, I don't remember a starting "incident."

The only thing I can think of is we have a fireplace and used it a lot, but I didn't start coughing until end of February/ March. The doctor told me I had gotten a cold, and when the cold went away my airways, bronchial tubes, and lungs stayed irritated. The treatment almost worked until I went to my sister's. Any ideas, or help? My mom will be calling the family doctor soon, but it will be a different doctor than the one who diagnosed me.

Post 21

Actually, RADS (Reactive Airways Dysfunction Syndrome) is just one type of Irritant-Induced Asthma that is uniquely defined by 8 parameters including (1) a massive one-time exposure and (2) symptoms presenting themselves within 24 hours of initial exposure. The onset of RADS is usually associated with an accident such as a chemical spill or a fire, or some type of spraying within a confined space.

Post 20

@madmanandy27: This is AngelicFlame. Have you been deemed "disabled" due to your RADS? Has anyone out there, for that matter? I've been in a constant legal battle ever since being diagnosed and continue to get denied by SSI/SSDI. It's been over two years now and I have no idea what to do or who/where to turn to for help.

I recently moved to Florida as there are specialists here who are familiar with RADS. However, no income = no health insurance. So I'm totally stuck! If only I could connect with the right physicians to provide the right documentation to SSI/SSDI describing how debilitating my condition is. I can't even go out in public without experiencing an "attack" when exposed to other peoples' perfumes, colognes, cigarettes, as well as the cleaning products, air fresheners, gases, fumes, etc. found out there in the world.

Post 19

I just came upon this forum. I was looking for help for a nagging cough that I've had for over 20 years! I've had all the tests going and have had no proper diagnosis.

I worked in an industrial paint factory for 30 years where they used irritant solvents, flammable chemicals, epoxy resins, etc. I recently had a lung function test and the radiographer said my lungs were clear, but there was a definite restriction in my airway. No one had ever said this before, so it will be interesting to see what my consultant says. I have been informed that I may be able to claim compensation for industrial disease. I would rather they kept the money and just got rid of my cough!

Post 18

I would rather die than have another fire season suffering from reactive airway disease. The wildfires will either kill me or I would pray they do.

Post 17

@anon292106: Many things can cause RAD, although this would be the first time I have heard of it being caused by pets. Doctors put many lung problems in the category of RAD at the start if they are unable to identify the problem initially. I hope the child is O.K.

Post 16

Would having a newborn in an apartment that is not well ventilated, with pets such as cats and a chinchilla possibly cause RAD?

Post 15

@anon286157: Sorry to hear that your son is going through this. It's such a terrible thing for a young boy.

I would certainly recommend seeing a lung specialist to get a vigorous assessment of your son's condition.

Post 14

My son has recently been diagnosed with RAD. He is 4 years old. The main triggers for him are if he gets to hot or if he starts crying. Then he will start gasping for air, coughing, and will throw up everything he has eaten all day.

About a year ago he had a spell were I woke up to find him gasping for air and his lips had turned blue. Recently, he had a very bad spell where he could not catch his breath at all. I was tempted to call 911 but tried his breathing machine first. Thankfully that seemed to work, but you could tell it took a toll on his little body. Is it time to have his Pediatrician recommend a specialist?

Post 13

@ts1963: No, RAD is not terminal. I think what the doctor means is there is no cure for RAD and saying that he would just make your niece comfortable is merely saying he would provide treatment and advice to make your niece more comfortable with the symptoms,e.g., keep her away from dusty areas sprays etc and provide inhalers.

I would personally recommend air purifiers in the bedrooms to take particles out of the air during sleep. I have one and it helps a lot.

Angelic flame and ts1963, I would be happy to give you any answers to any questions I can answer with my ongoing RAD experience.

Post 12

My niece was recently diagnosed with reactive airway disease. She has suffered from asthma since she was a child. This new diagnosis has actually scared her to death because her doctor made it seem that the disease was terminal/fatal, telling her when asked what was going to be done that he was "just going to make her comfortable." What the hell is that supposed to mean? He got her thinking she was going to die. She has two small children and getting upset because she is unsure about their future without her.

All the information I have come across doesn't show that this disease is fatal or terminal. I suggested that she get second opinion from a specialist. Am I wrong? Is this disease fatal/terminal?

Post 11

I'm so glad I came across this page. I had a chemical exposure at a hospital I worked at back in 2007. I was left in the contaminated office for four straight hours. Within 10 minutes, I was already experiencing symptoms.

Since then, my life has been a complete wreck! My sensitivity to non-organic chemicals, smoke, fumes, perfumes, deodorants, sprays, etc. has made it impossible for me to find work because I can't be around the public. I haven't had any income, don't have health insurance and am struggling just to stay alive on a daily basis. I've been trying to apply for disability since January of this year, but they keep telling me I'm not "disabled". If the

people who make that determination could only spend a day in my shoes, they would clearly see just how disabled I am. Anyway, I would love to speak with anyone who has had this for a while and how it's affected your life.

My heart goes out to all those who have been diagnosed with RADS and who continue to suffer from it.

Post 10

I am hoping to get an answer from poster anon122860: What did they treat you with for the pneumonia? I have the same problem and am hoping that the same treatment will alleviate my cough. I have had this for 18 years! Please post the meds they used?

Post 9

@anon144: It really depends. In some people it passes over time, but in some they have it forever. As you were exposed to asbestos and diagnosed with rads, there are not many treatments for the condition almost all do not have any effect on the very sensitive bronchial airways that are hyper sensitive now.

I'm so sorry to hear about this happening to you, but I'm sure you have put in a claim for compensation? If you're a smoker, it's much more difficult to claim because they have a defense that you may have caused it, at least partly, yourself. But if you are a smoker my advice is to give up now as it will really affect you badly.

I won my case with rads and i really do hope you get better over time and get the compensation you're due for being exposed to such a dangerous material. They will probably try you on flixotide steroid accuhaler and duovent and others such as salbutamol, also maybe steroid injections -- all which had no effect on me. You will probably get a methacholine bronchial responsiveness test which checks how sensitive your lungs are and you may have had this already.

But i really hope it works for you. All the best.

Keep in touch via this site let me know how you get on. If you have any questions i may be able to help with, please ask. if i can help, i will. best regards, andy

Post 8

So if I say that I had 100 percent asbestos exposure on a job that has ended with the lung doctor giving me the RADS and bronchiolitis diagnosis as November 2010, what comes next for me?

Post 7

my rad can be triggered with anything from coal fire, smoke and deodorant sprays, to chemicals with strong fumes, etc. and many many more things.

In my case, it was caused by chemical accident at work, although in theory, it may be similar. i would try keeping him away from sprays, etc., and see what happens as these severely affect me to the point of hospitalization, although i understand your son is milder than mine. I hope it stays like that. I wouldn't wish it on anyone, poor wee fellow.

Try avoiding irritants such as sprays, etc. and see how it goes anon136195

Post 6

My son (whom is 19 months old) was recently diagnosed with RAD. Thus far his only triggers have been viruses such as colds and flus. He has had all vaccinations and flu shots but as he has just started day care and has two older school age siblings who bring home everything from school, we are at a loss for removing his triggers.

We have taken his pediatrician's advice and started him on a daily steroid inhaler. However, I am open to any additional advice in helping him with this.

Post 5

Today after more than 10 years, I found out that I had reactive airway disease. When I read madmanandy27 posting, I said the post is talking about me. For 10 years, I coughed every hour, day, month and year. It did not matter what they gave me to stop the coughing, I continued to cough.

Earlier this year, I had pneumonia and was put on medication for five days. About two weeks later, I realized that I was not coughing anymore. It has been six months and am still cough-free.

Post 4

I have had reactive airways disease for 10 years. It was originally called IIA (irritant induced asthma) then RADS (reactive airways dysfunction syndrome) and now RAD (reactive airways disease) with constant coughing that gets worse in the presence of diesel fumes, petrol fumes and any gas, hot and cold temperature changes, pollen, smoke from cooking, dust, exertion and many more things.

I was exposed to huge amounts of zinc that caused this condition. I totally disagree with this statement in the article above "people with this condition experience less sensitivity to environmental pollutants than asthmatics." No inhalers, steroids, etc. stop my symptoms. Asthma has instant relief from inhalers in most cases.

My symptoms persist all the time day and night, stopping me from sleeping and causing me to hallucinate due to being awakened in the middle of deep sleep with coughing. Which leaves me tired all the time and affects my moods day to day.

Post 3

I live in one of the most heavily polluted areas in the country. It only took one bout of RADS for me to realize that I could not subject my four-year-old daughter to the awful coughing and nostril-flaring associated with this disease. Now, on days when there are warnings about pollution or if I can see the smog blanketing our area, I make sure to put a mask on her.

She, of course, was not receptive or cooperative about wearing a mask at first. So, I made a game out of it to make it seem more appealing. She is the "Incredible Mask Girl" on heavily polluted days. We pretend she's a super hero and I even let her wear a little pink cape to accompany the mask that we have decorated with glitter and foil stars.

Post 2

Approximately 30% of all children who exhibit reactive airway disease symptom will have asthma in adulthood. It is important to take preventative measures in order to stave off RADS. The best way to keep your child from developing this unpleasant coughing or wheezing is to keep him/her away from pollutants and irritants.

Post 1

This pulmonary disorder is caused by external irritants and is non allergic. Very similar to asthma, RADS can occur in people who are exposed to ammonia, chlorine, and sulphur dioxide.

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