Asthma, COPD, and Your Lungs

By Spader, Catherine, RN

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are different lung diseases that have similar symptoms, such as difficulty breathing and coughing. It may be hard to know which condition you have. Some people have both asthma and COPD. While the symptoms of the two conditions are similar, the cause and treatment differs.

What Are the Symptoms of Asthma and COPD?

Typical symptoms of asthma and COPD include:

  • Chest tightness

  • Persistent cough

  • Shortness of breath and trouble breathing

  • Wheezing, or making a high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe

If you have any of these symptoms, you should talk to your doctor as soon as possible to figure out if you have asthma, COPD, or both conditions.

What Causes Asthma and COPD?

Asthma and COPD are both common, long-term (chronic) lung diseases. Despite this and their look-alike symptoms, the diseases are caused by different things and affect your lungs differently.

Asthma often begins during childhood but can occur at any time during your life. When you have an asthma attack, your airways overreact to certain asthma triggers, such as exercise, cold air, a respiratory infection, or dust and pollen. This reaction causes inflammation, irritation, and swelling of your airways. The surrounding muscles in your lungs react by tightening and your mucus production increases, further blocking airflow and making breathing difficult.

The exact cause of asthma is not fully understood, but it involves a combination of genetic, immunologic, and environmental factors, such as polluted air, dust, and pollen. You are more likely to develop asthma if a family member has asthma. Childhood asthma often resolves during adolescence, however some individuals remain asthmatic for life.

COPD generally occurs in your middle-age or senior years; however, it can occur at a younger age. COPD is a combination of two diseases:

  • Emphysema, which destroys the airways within your lungs

  • Chronic bronchitis, which involves a long-term cough with mucus

The main cause of COPD is smoking. You can also get COPD from regularly breathing in different types of irritants. With time, inhaling smoke and other irritants can damage your airways causing swelling and irritation. As with asthma, COPD can cause your body to make a large amount of mucus, which can further block your airways. The longer you expose your lungs to smoke and irritants, the more likely you are to develop COPD.

How Are Asthma and COPD Treated?

Treatment of asthma and COPD differ even though the symptoms are similar.

The inflammation of asthma can be treated with anti-inflammatory medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids. By following your asthma treatment plan, you can reduce the inflammation in your lungs and improve your breathing. You may go long periods of time without symptoms and your asthma will not cause permanent lung damage.

In contrast to asthma, COPD generally does not get better with anti-inflammatory medications. Inhaled bronchodilators are prescribed to relax the muscles around your airways. But the key treatment is to stop smoking and avoid other irritants that can damage your airways. COPD treatments may slow progression of the disease somewhat, but you will probably have symptoms of COPD every day. The damage to your lungs caused by COPD is permanent and is not reversible. Unfortunately, supplemental oxygen is often necessary for severe COPD.

Can Asthma and COPD Be Prevented?

COPD is largely preventable, but asthma generally is not. You can greatly lower your risk of developing COPD by not smoking. If you have asthma, you may be at a higher risk for developing COPD, so it is important that you not smoke. Your healthcare provider can suggest smoking cessation programs and other steps you can take to stop smoking.

In addition to not smoking, try to avoid inhaling other lung irritants, such as polluted air, chemical fumes, and dust. You may need to wear a face mask at times, especially if you are using chemicals.

If you have difficulty breathing and other asthma and COPD symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible so that you can be treated. If it is asthma, there are many medications you can take to help you breathe easier again.

Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS Last Annual Review Date: Dec. 15, 2013 Copyright: © Copyright 2013 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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Asthma is more common in boys than girls.