New research has suggested that half a million children have been wrongly diagnosed with asthma.
The study suggests that more than half of those diagnosed may not have the chronic lung condition and are being put at risk of the side effects of their medication.
Doctors have failed to properly assess the children or carry out the correct lung function tests, which give a conclusive finding, the report claims.
The report which was carried out by the University of Utrecht, in The Netherlands, looked at the records of 656 children diagnosed with asthma and found 53 per cent showed no clinical signs of the condition.
The Netherlands tops the polls for best healthcare in Europe, so the problem could be even more severe in the UK.
Last year the NHS watchdog warned that one third of adults diagnosed with asthma showed no clinical signs of the condition and had probably been misdiagnosed.
In the UK the National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE) said that doctors often base asthma diagnosis on a history of breathing problems, wheezing and coughs, rather than clinical tests.
NICE is currently drawing up new guidelines advising GPs to use more clinical tests when diagnosing asthma, to avoid labelling a patient incorrectly. NICE said it would be using the University of Utrecht’s report for future guidance.
Professor Mark Baker, director of clinical practice at NICE, said: “NICE is currently developing a guideline to provide advice for primary, secondary and community care healthcare professionals on the most suitable tests for accurately diagnosing asthma and how to help people monitor and control their symptoms. As part of this work, NICE is inviting GP practices to take part in a project to check the feasibility of some diagnostic tests that NICE proposes to recommend”.
Some of the drugs used to manage asthma can have significant side effects. These include muscle cramps, throat infection, tremors, vomiting and nausea. In addition to this, children with asthma often avoid exercise, which can lead to weight problems.
Dr Maureen Baker, Chair of the Royal College of GPs, said, “There is no single test that can definitively diagnose asthma, and this can make it difficult to do in primary care, particularly when some common symptoms are similar to those of other illnesses.
Some useful diagnostic tests are already available in primary care in the UK, but we need increased investment so that we can broaden GP access to this equipment and undergo the training necessary to use it in the best interests of our patients.”
The BBC reports that in 2011 there were 1,167 deaths from asthma. 18 of those were children aged 14 and under.
The NHS spends around £1 billion a year treating and caring for the 5.4 million people with asthma but many may be suffering from other respiratory diseases or allergies.
Asthma UK said there is also evidence asthma is under-diagnosed too – and that eight out of 10 asthma sufferers are still not getting the correct basic care.