COPD vs Asthma: Understanding the Difference

When you develop a lung disease or infection such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you are often required to make significant lifestyle modifications to make breathing easier.

After diagnosis, it’s normal to have questions. For many people, the big question is: How can I breathe easier?

The first step is getting the diagnosis straight. A sufferer’s prognosis and treatment options are very dependent on the actual condition.

When it comes to chronic lung conditions, it can be difficult to tell symptoms apart; on occasion, it can result in an incorrect diagnosis.

For example, asthma and COPD differences are subtle, and there’s even a third possibility: asthma-COPD overlap syndrome. Knowing the difference can be difficult but essential to a good treatment plan.

Major differences between COPD and asthma

  • Age – An easy difference between COPD and asthma is the age when a diagnosis is made. Asthma is most often diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, while COPD is diagnosed later in life.
  • History of smoking – Nearly all patients with COPD either have smoked or have a significant environmental tobacco smoke exposure, while asthma patients are more commonly non-smokers.
  • Triggers – For the most part, asthma is acutely worsened by exposure to allergens, cold air and exercise. COPD flare-ups are largely caused by respiratory tract infections like pneumonia and influenza. COPD can also be made worse from exposure to environmental pollutants.
  • Treatment – The goal of treatment is different for both diseases. Asthma is treated to suppress chronic inflammation, whereas COPD is treated to reduce symptoms. The effects of asthma can be reversed, while COPD only progresses further.

The Connection Between Asthma and COPD

While COPD and asthma are considered separate respiratory conditions but share many of the same symptoms. These include coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath.

Both conditions are diagnosed with a spirometry test and are treated accordingly. Since COPD and asthma share many of the same features, it can be hard to tell the difference between each disease or if they overlap causing overlap syndrome.

Roughly 40 percent of known COPD sufferers also have asthma, which is considered a risk factor for developing the disease. Furthermore, as you age, the likelihood of overlap syndrome increases between these two conditions.

Understanding Asthma

Asthma is a lung disease that inflames and narrows the airways, causing wheezing, chest tightness, shortness of breath and coughing, usually at night or in the early morning.

It is estimated that 24.6 million Americans have asthma, and unfortunately studies suggest that disease occurrence is actually on rise. In most cases, asthma is a chronic disorder.

Asthma affects people of all ages, but it often starts during childhood. Approximately seven million US children are suffering from asthma.

Young children who frequently wheeze when they have respiratory infections and have other risk factors—parents with asthma, eczema (an allergic skin condition), allergies—are at the highest risk of asthma continuing beyond six years of age.

In children, boys are more likely to have asthma than girls. In adults, more women than men have asthma. With current research, the role of gender and sex hormones is unclear especially with the fluctuating occurrences depending on age.

Most people who have asthma also have allergies. Another common risk factor can be found based on employment; this is called “occupational asthma,” which comes from contact with chemicals or dust in the workplace.

Understanding COPD

COPD is an umbrella term for bronchitis, emphysema, and in some cases, chronic asthma. Airflow obstruction is the common denominator. Patients have coughing, thick mucus or phlegm, and most of all, shortness of breath. Symptoms are continual and progressive.

COPD is an adult disease, usually diagnosed in middle or older age. Smoking is the direct cause of COPD for 85 to 90 percent of people with the condition in most Western nations.

In a few of cases, a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency is the cause. And for other patients, environmental and occupational exposures are the culprits.

Final Thoughts

There are several key differences between COPD and asthma, and your doctor will help you determine which condition you are suffering from. If you are concerned that you have been misdiagnosed, check in frequently with your pulmonologist to ensure the proper diagnosis.

If you believe you might be suffering from COPD or asthma, contact your doctor today and find out. There are options available to help treat either condition.