Eosinophilic esophagitis: asthma of the esophagus?

Dig Dis. 2014;32(1-2):54-60. doi: 10.1159/000357010. Epub 2014 Feb 28.


The question whether eosinophilic esophagitis (EoE) might be an 'asthma of the esophagus' is reasonable. There are a number of similarities between the two diseases: EoE and asthma, as well as other atopic diseases, are frequently associated and have a number of similarities in their pathogenesis. Thus, investigating differences and similarities between the diseases might be a worthwhile endeavor. Both EoE and asthma are chronic immune-mediated conditions characterized by inflammatory changes in the mucosa and submucosa with a characteristic and diagnostic infiltration of eosinophils. They result in organ dysfunction with considerable morbidity and (in the case of asthma) even mortality. Asthma and EoE affect all ages, but frequently start in childhood or adolescence. While asthma has seen a large increase in its prevalence in the past 50 years, EoE was first described in the 1970s. Since then the frequency of the diagnosis of EoE has increased significantly. The prevalence for both diseases seems to be highest in the Western world. In contrast to asthma, where females are more often affected, EoE is more frequent in males. Asthma in children, however, is also more common in boys, but this changes after puberty. EoE is frequently associated with asthma, and up to 80% of patients with EoE are atopic, similar to childhood asthma. Adult-onset asthma is not necessarily associated with atopy (termed intrinsic asthma) and similar observations have been made for EoE. Endoscopically, asthmatic airway mucosa as well as esophageal mucosa in EoE can appear normal, and biopsies are required for diagnosis. Long-standing disease in asthma has been associated with 'remodeling' compared to predominantly reversible inflammatory changes early in the course of the disease. Similar observations have been made in EoE. Toxic proteins derived from eosinophils such as major basic protein, eosinophil-derived neurotoxin and eosinophil cationic protein can be found in the mucosa of both diseases, which are also characterized by a thickening of the lamina propria or basement membrane, respectively. Despite these histologic and immunochemistry findings, asthma as well as EoE remain clinical diagnoses, and diagnosing either condition can be challenging. Therapeutically, both diseases respond well to corticosteroids. Ironically, corticosteroids for inhalation are deliberately swallowed in EoE to reach the esophageal mucosa. Allergen/food avoidance can improve symptoms in asthma and EoE. Taken together, allergic asthma and EoE have a number of common features which make a common pathogenesis manifested in different organs for reasons not yet fully understood likely. Combining allergological research with gastroenterologic and pneumologic expertise with a focus on similarities between these diseases might be a way forward.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Asthma / complications*
  • Asthma / pathology
  • Diagnosis, Differential
  • Endophenotypes
  • Eosinophilic Esophagitis / complications*
  • Eosinophilic Esophagitis / pathology
  • Eosinophilic Esophagitis / therapy
  • Humans
  • Treatment Outcome