Wheezing and shortness of breath can occur even if you do not have asthma. For example, a bronchial infection, known as bronchitis, might make you feel as if you were suffering from asthma. During bronchitis, the bronchial tubes are chronically constricted and partially or totally blocked by the large amount of mucus produced by the inflamed lining. These features often are mistaken as asthma, and the treatment you would receive is almost exactly the same as what would be prescribed for an asthma attack. The exception is that for bacterial bronchitis, you would also be treated with antibiotics. However, with proper medication, and reversal of the triggering factors, asthma should be completely reversible: Your breathing will immediately return to normal. With a bronchial infection, especially if it becomes chronic, the condition can be controlled but is not reversible. For an acute bronchitis, treatment will resolve the problem but it will not occur immediately. Therefore, if you find that you are wheezing without the presence of other asthma symptoms including shortness of breath, you should discuss this symptom with your doctor.
Chronic bronchitis, which is a subset of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is also often confused with asthma. This disease is directly linked to cigarette smoking and pollution. A chronic smoker or someone exposed to significant air pollution can develop major permanent destruction of the air passages in the lungs. For these patients, the major bronchial tubes are so damaged by the chronic bronchitis process that they do constrict and can fill with excessive mucus. Asthma medications will have limited, if any effect for improving the shortness of breath caused by this disease.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for someone to be told by one doctor that he or she has asthma, only to be told a month later by another doctor that it’s emphysema. The two can look the same, although emphysema is not reversible, whereas asthma is.