People with asthma are more likely to suffer frequent panic attacks, a new study shows.

Government researchers who conducted the study say the finding that asthma and panic disorder often occur together could have important implications for asthma treatment.

“We found a very strong relationship between asthma and panic,” psychiatrist Gregor Hasler, MD, of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), tells WebMD. “The next step would be to see if medications used to treat panic disorder can also help a subset of asthma patients.”

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Panic Disorder Increases Asthma

The NIMH trial was the first long-term follow-up study to assess asthma and panic. Roughly 600 randomly selected residents of Zurich, Switzerland, who were 19 years old at recruitment were followed for two decades.

Having asthma was linked to a 4.5-fold increase in the risk of developing panic disorder, a condition characterized by repeated, unexplained panic attacks. And people with panic disorder were six times as likely as people without the anxiety condition to develop asthma over the 20 year follow-up period.

The asthma link was much stronger among people who had panic disorder than in those who had infrequent panic attacks. Smokers and those with a family history of allergies were also at increased risk. Smoking is known to exacerbate both asthma and panic disorder.

The study is published in the June issue of the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine.

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Can Treatment Improve Both Conditions?

Mike Thomas, MD, is also studying the link between asthma and anxiety. He says he was not surprised by the finding that asthma seems to increase the risk of developing panic disorder.

“Asthma is a very frightening condition to have,” he says. “When you repeatedly have episodes where you are fighting for breath it is not a great leap to think that that might push you toward a formal anxiety disorder if you are vulnerable.”

He tells WebMD that he was more surprised at the large increase in asthma risk among people with panic disorders.

“My main concern would be that hyperventilation and other symptoms associated with panic may be misdiagnosed as asthma,” he says. “The symptoms of both of these disorders are somewhat nonspecific and tend to overlap.”

Thomas’ own research indicates that as many as one in three asthma patients also have abnormal breathing patterns associated with panic and anxiety.

“If we can identify the subgroup of people with asthma who also have anxiety and panic and treat them for this, we might not only improve their panic-related symptoms but their asthma as well,” he says.

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By Salynn Boyles, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Hasler, G. American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, June 1, 2005; vol 171: pp 1224-1230. Gregor Hasler, MD, National Institute of Mental Health, Mood and Anxiety Disorders Program, Bethesda, Md. Mike Thomas, MD, department of general practice and primary care, University of Aberdeen, Scotland.