What Is The Difference Between Asthma And COPD?

By MaryAnn DePietro, CRT. May 7th 2016

Both asthma and COPD are two different medical conditions, which affect the airway and can cause difficulty breathing. Although there are some similarities, and it is possible to have both conditions, COPD and asthma are two separate diseases. Among the differences are the causes, progression of illness and age when the conditions start. Differentiating between COPD and asthma, and getting a correct diagnosis is important for proper treatment. To recognize the differences between asthma and COPD, it is important to understand what each condition is.

Definition Of COPD

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which is referred to as COPD for short, may include two different conditions including emphysema or chronic bronchitis. Both forms of COPD are considered progressive, and it is possible to have both emphysema and chronic bronchitis together.

To understand COPD, it is important to understand a little about lung anatomy including the following:

  • The tubes that lead to the lungs are known as bronchioles.
  • At the end of the bronchioles are small air sacs known as alveoli.
  • The air sacs are elastic, which allows air to fill and deflate when breathing.

In people with COPD, the bronchioles and alveoli become damaged, usually due to cigarette smoking. When smoking damages the air sacs, they lose their elasticity and become floppy. Because the air sacs are floppy, it makes it difficult to inhale and get enough oxygen to the body. It also makes it difficult to exhale completely and rid the body of carbon dioxide. When this type of damage occurs it is considered emphysema.

In chronic bronchitis, smoking damages the lining of the bronchioles. Breathing is impaired by both inflammation and an excess production of mucus.

Definition of Asthma

Asthma is a chronic lung condition, which according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), affects over 17 million people in the United States. In people with asthma, their airways are sensitive and react to certain triggers. When an individual is exposed to an allergen or trigger, an inflammatory response develops in the lungs. The inflammation causes excess mucus production and a constriction of the airways. This combination makes breathing difficult. Triggers vary among individuals, but common triggers include:

  • Pollen
  • Exercise
  • Mold
  • Dust mites
  • Stress

Researches are not sure why some people develop asthma, but according to the Mayo Clinic, it may be a combination of genetics and environmental factors.

Differences Between Asthma And COPD

There are several differences between COPD and asthma:

  • The age of onset is often different. According to the American Association of Respiratory Care (AARC), asthma typically starts in childhood or the teen years. COPD typically develops in middle age after years of smoking.
  • Complications of COPD and asthma may also differ. Pulmonary artery hypertension is a serious complication, which can develop as COPD progresses, but rarely occurs in people with asthma. Patients with COPD tend to have decreased lung function even when they are not experiencing an exacerbation of symptoms. This is due to lung damage. People with asthma may have close to normal lung function when they are between a flare-up of symptoms.
  • Differences in treatment. Although both diseases cause inflammation in the airways, the inflammatory response is different, which causes the response to medications to be different.

Similarities Between Asthma And COPD

In both COPD and asthma the lungs are irritated, which causes an inflammatory response leading to narrowing of the airways. In COPD, the lungs are irritated and damaged from cigarette smoking. In people with asthma, the lungs are irritated by a reaction to a particular allergen. Symptoms of both COPD and asthma may be similar, which may include increased mucus production, airway constriction, chest tightness, coughing and wheezing. Both conditions can be life threatening if breathing becomes severely impaired.

Treatment Approaches

Both COPD and asthma are treated with medications. In cases of acute symptoms, bronchodilators are used for both diseases. In addition, according to the AARC, inhaled steroids are often used as maintenance treatment to prevent asthma symptoms. Although inhaled steroids may also be given to people with COPD, they are only used for patients who do not have their symptoms controlled through bronchodilators.

In both diseases, prevention of symptom exacerbations and improving the quality of life is part of the treatment approach. For people with COPD, smoking cessation is needed to help prevent progression of the disease as much as possible. Improving exercise tolerance through pulmonary rehabilitation classes may be recommended to improve daily functioning. Patients with asthma will be encouraged to keep a log of when symptoms flare-up and try to identify and avoid asthma triggers.

Although COPD and asthma are both considered chronic conditions, since there is no cure, treatment is vital to improve both exacerbation of symptoms and quality of life. Patients with either COPD or asthma can take an active role in their treatment plan. Distinguishing between both conditions and identifying effective treatment is the first step to controlling symptoms.


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