Ethnic differences: word descriptors used by African-American and white asthma patients during induced bronchoconstriction

Chest. 2000 Apr;117(4):935-43. doi: 10.1378/chest.117.4.935.


Study objectives: To determine if African-American and white patients with asthma (1) differ in the words they use to describe their breathlessness, and (2) differ in their perception of breathlessness.

Design: Descriptive cross-sectional design.

Setting and participants: The study setting was located in Northern California, an ethnically and economically diverse area. A total of 32 subjects, 16 per group, completed the study.

Measurements: All had a provocation concentration of methacholine chloride causing a 30% fall in FEV(1) (PC(30)) of </= 8 mg/mL. Serial pulmonary function testing was performed. Breathlessness was measured using the Borg scale and the visual analog scale. Word descriptors were measured by an open-ended word descriptor questionnaire.

Results: Significant ethnic differences in the words used to describe the sensation of breathlessness were present at PC(30). African Americans used upper airway word descriptors: tight throat (p < 0. 0004), scared-agitated (p < 0.006), voice tight (p < 0.04), itchy throat (p < 0.03), and tough breath (p < 0.04). Whites used lower airway or chest-wall symptom descriptors: deep breath (p < 0.03), light-headed (p < 0.03), out of air (p < 0.01), aware of breathing (p < 0.03), and hurts to breathe (p < 0.06). In addition, African Americans required a significantly smaller, 44.3% (mean), dose of methacholine to achieve PC(30) (p < 0.02).

Conclusion: This study provides valuable new information about ethnicity and the words used to describe breathlessness during airflow obstruction. Asthmatic African Americans used primarily upper airway word descriptors; whites used lower airway or chest-wall word descriptors. Effective symptom monitoring requires asking the correct question and awareness that ethnic differences in the words used to describe breathlessness may exist.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Administration, Inhalation
  • Adult
  • Asthma / diagnosis*
  • Asthma / ethnology
  • Black People*
  • Bronchial Provocation Tests
  • Bronchoconstriction* / drug effects
  • Bronchoconstrictor Agents / administration & dosage
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Dyspnea / diagnosis*
  • Dyspnea / ethnology
  • Female
  • Forced Expiratory Volume / drug effects
  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Male
  • Methacholine Chloride / administration & dosage
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • White People*


  • Bronchoconstrictor Agents
  • Methacholine Chloride