According to the Center For Disease Control (CDC) 17.7 million adults and 6.3 million children have asthma in the United States. Asthma is a huge strain on the health care system, causing more than 10 million physician visits and almost two million emergency room trips every year. Diagnosing asthma correctly and treating it appropriately are key to controlling the chronic condition.
Current asthma testing
Asthma testing currently starts with a good physical and sharing a thorough patient history. The physician most often will use a spirometer or a peak flow meter to determine a patient’s lung function. Both of these tests require the patient to blow forcefully into the device to measure airflow lung capacity, so they can’t be used with very young or very old people, and they can be inaccurate. There are additional tests, including the methacholine challenge, which constricts the airways of an asthma sufferer, or experiments that can provoke an attack through exercise or exposure to cold air, but these can be uncomfortable or impractical. Other tests, on blood, urine, and sputum, are accurate but invasive, limiting their use.
New advances in testing
Research now promises to make diagnosing asthma much more comfortable and practical as well as accurate, by profiling the metabolic characteristics of the patient’s saliva. According to a study published in Analytical Methodsin June 2016, researchers used liquid chromatography-mass spectrometry to identify 10 biomarkers in saliva that are specific to people with moderate asthma, and not found in people unaffected by the condition. The researchers eventually were able to use this process to diagnose asthma correctly 97 percent of the time.
What does this mean for asthma patients?
Unlike other testing, collecting samples of saliva is very easy and can even be done by simply collecting the passive drool of a patient. This is especially good news for patients who would otherwise be unable to handle traditional tests for asthma. This also may allow for earlier testing in children who can’t be accurately diagnosed using currently available tests. Early diagnosis is important for the prevention of damage to the lungs caused by untreated asthma.
The saliva test promises to not only make diagnosing asthma easier, it also may provide more information about the nature of the patient’s condition. Detecting the presence and amount of metabolic biomarkers shows potential for determining the severity and progression of the disease. These factors could become key tools as physicians try to determine if medications are working or if a patient’s medical plan needs changing.
As with most early research, more testing on larger sample groups is needed to validate these results. But asthma patients and their loved ones could use a standardized saliva test in their arsenal.
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Jennifer has a bachelor's degree in dietetics as well as graduate work in public health and nutrition.She has worked with families dealing with digestive disease, asthma and food allergies for the past 12 years.Jennifer also serves on the Board of Directors for Pediatric Adolescent Gastroesophageal Reflux Association (PAGER).