Asthma and 9 Other Health Problems That Are Commonly Misdiagnosed

Doctors examine x-rays from asthma patients, who are frequently being given a misdiagnosis

Doctors examine x-rays from asthma patients, who are frequently being given a misdiagnosis. | Money Sharma/AFP/Getty Images

We all find ourselves pitted against difficult problems. And nothing is more infuriating or frustrating than thinking you’ve solved the issue, only to realize you have to go back to square one. You probably face your own slate of challenges, but put yourself in the shoes of a doctor — where a simple misdiagnosis can mean the difference between life and death.

But misdiagnoses are relatively rare, right? It depends on what you’re dealing with. You can typically trust that your doctor and the modern medical system are going to be able to figure out what’s going on with you, but it can be difficult sometimes. Many illnesses and disorders manifest themselves in very similar ways. Symptoms overlap, and zeroing in on the right diagnosis is very hard, even for trained professionals.

A study from researchers at the University of Ottawa is a perfect example. According to the study, up to one-third of all asthma patients have received a misdiagnosis.

“We recruited 701 adults who had been diagnosed with asthma within the past five years from the community. We brought them into our labs and ran extensive lung function tests on them to try to prove asthma,” the study’s author, Shawn Aaron, told ResearchGate. He later added, “Ultimately, 33% of the participants were found not to have active asthma, despite being completely off medications.”

Aaron says patients either received a misdiagnosis, or their asthma had gone into remission. Either way, they no longer needed active treatment. And this is only one example of a commonly misdiagnosed medical condition. There are plenty others. Leading off with asthma, here are 10 health ills that are frequently misdiagnosed.

1. Asthma

An asthma inhaler dispenses its contents

Asthma is often misdiagnosed. | Getty Images

As discussed, asthma is evidently misdiagnosed as much as one-third of the time. We’ve talked about the study in question, and the lead author, Shawn Aaron of the University of Ottawa, has some advice for those who are worried about a misdiagnosis. “Patients should make sure they get breathing tests (spirometry) done before they accept a diagnosis of asthma if they are having trouble breathing,” he said in the same ResearchGate story.

“Secondly, if they have been diagnosed with asthma and are well-controlled (in other words, they are not having shortness of breath or wheezing or coughing) they should ask their doctor to reassess the diagnosis with spirometry and then decide whether they can try tapering asthma medication out. They should only do this with their doctor, not alone.”

2. Celiac disease

Gluten Free loaf of bread

Celiac is often misdiagnosed, too. |

With the glut of gluten-free foods you’re seeing at your local restaurants and stores, you may be wondering what’s going on. It’s partly a fad and partly to accommodate those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease. As it turns out, many celiac misdiagnoses have been levied by doctors. Because the disease mimics the symptoms of other health issues, doctors have a hard time with a proper diagnosis. Studies have shown many people are incorrectly diagnosed.

3. Fibromyalgia

woman massaging her painful neck

Fibromyalgia shares signs and symptoms similar to other illnesses. |

Fibromyalgia is another condition that shares many signs and symptoms with other ills. The main signs someone has the disorder are chronic fatigue and pain — which doesn’t exactly narrow things down. Fibromyalgia is often misdiagnosed as other disorders like lupus, hypothyroidism, and even sleep apnea.

4. Lupus

Celebrities attend an event to raise money for Lupus awareness

Celebrities attend an event to raise money for Lupus awareness. | Angela Weiss/Getty Images for Lupus Foundation of America

Speaking of lupus, it also shares symptom overlap with several other health problems. The Lupus Foundation of America explains it’s an autoimmune disorder that causes your body to turn on itself in some cases, thinking it’s fighting off foreign bodies. This, obviously, can have disastrous results. But those results look remarkably similar to those of other disorders. That, in turn, leads to misdiagnoses.

5. Irritable bowel syndrome

female holding her belly due to Stomach Ache

IBS shows symptoms similar to many other digestive disorders. |

Irritable bowel syndrome is a particularly nasty condition that affects the intestines, MedlinePlus says. It causes constipation, diarrhea, or both. And we still don’t know exactly what causes it or if there’s a good test for identifying it. One study says about 10% of people with some sort other type of inflammatory bowel disease are misdiagnosed with IBS.

6. Chronic fatigue syndrome

tired beautiful woman on dark background

Chronic fatigue syndrome is tough to correctly diagnose. |

As you might suspect, chronic fatigue syndrome is hard to nail down — even for doctors. There are a lot of overlapping symptoms with other health issues, which can make it difficult to tell what you’re dealing with. Symptoms include fatigue, obviously, along with pain and memory problems.

7. Diabetes

close-up of a man checking his blood sugar

Even diabetes can be misdiagnosed. |

Diabetes is a very common health condition, especially these days when America is experiencing an obesity epidemic. But it’s not always easy to detect, even when you know what symptoms to look for. Evidently, such misdiagnoses are fairly common.

8. Parkinson’s disease

Actor Michael J. Fox, who famously suffers from Parkinsons disease

Actor Michael J. Fox, who famously has Parkinson’s disease | Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images

Parkinson’s disease is a movement disorder that affects the nervous and muscular systems. It worsens with time and symptoms include slowed movement, tremors, and problems with balance and speech. It shares similarities with other neurodegenerative conditions, which makes it hard to get a correct diagnosis. Some evidence suggests general practitioner’s incorrectly diagnose Parkinson’s disease 50% of the time.

9. Rheumatoid arthritis

A man with arthritis who is experiencing pain from swollen joints because of inflammation |

Rheumatoid arthritis is common, but it shares symptoms of other diseases. |

Rheumatoid arthritis is an extremely common type of autoimmune arthritis, meaning it causes the body’s own defense system to attack itself. It causes joint pain and swelling, and can severely limit mobility and physical activity. Because it shares similar symptoms with a plethora of other conditions, which the University of Maryland Medical Center highlights, doctors may misdiagnose it as any number of other problems.

10. Lyme disease

A tick on a man's finger, which often carries Lyme disease

Lyme disease is serious, but often diagnosed as something else at first. | Getty Images

If you’re experiencing flu-like symptoms along with chronic fatigue, you probably figure you’re just sick. But it could be something more serious like Lyme disease. Spread through tick bites, Lyme disease can seem like any number of other health ills, making it hard to pinpoint. WebMD says it’s commonly mistaken for chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia.