Anxiety sensitivity has been linked to more debilitating asthma symptoms and greater functional limitations.

Researchers from the University of Cincinnati studied 101 college undergraduate students with asthma in order to investigate the relationship between anxiety and asthma.

“Anxiety sensitivity amplifies your reaction to anxiety symptoms, which are very similar to asthma symptoms,” study author Alison C. McLeish, PhD, told Pharmacy Times. “We found that people with asthma and high anxiety symptoms were more reactive to their asthma symptoms.”

The researchers had previously conducted research that demonstrated high levels of anxiety were detrimental to the management of asthma, and they believed that anxiety made the patients more reactive to their symptoms.

To test this theory, the participants completed a self-assessment and participated in a breathing exercise involving a straw. During this straw-breathing task, patients were required to have their inhalers with them in case of an induced asthma attack, and they were permitted to stop at any time.

During the exercise, the participants who reported a higher anxiety sensitivity did have greater anxiety during the straw-breathing exercise, and they also had greater asthma symptoms and decreased lung function. 

The results of the study, published in Behavior Modification, indicated that interventions for patients with high anxiety, like exposure therapy, could be beneficial.

Pharmacists can be effective arbitrators of this anxiety and asthma co-management, Dr. McLeish added.

“Encourage them to talk to their doctor about their anxiety or educate them that their anxiety symptoms make their asthma worse,” she told Pharmacy Times. “For people with high levels of anxiety and asthma, it might be useful to have them test their lung function before taking their rescue inhaler if they find they are using it a lot.”

Dr. McLeish added that some research on the subject suggests that asthma patients with anxiety use more medications than their objective lung function may indicate is needed. However, medication intake should be monitored by their health care professional, she said.

“Sometimes, it’s hard to tell the difference between asthma symptoms and anxiety symptoms,” Dr. McLeish said. “For people with high levels of anxiety and asthma, it might be panic.”