Telling the Difference Between Asthma and COPD

Telling the Difference Between Asthma and COPD

By COPD Connect StaffA Published at Last Monday Views 4,726 Comments 1 Likes 5

The difference between chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and asthma can be difficult to distinguish – even for medical professionals.

The two conditions have similar symptoms and both are respiratory conditions that result from inflammation and hyperactivity. It’s not uncommon for them to occur together, or to be confused in diagnosis.

But COPD and asthma are still two very different animals in terms of onset, some symptoms, treatment and long-term outcomes. It is important to understand these differences in order to better discuss the diseases with your physician.

Asthma and COPD may have similar symptoms such as shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and chest tightness. However, asthma patients are more likely to experience episodic symptoms, while persons with COPD generally have chronic, progressive symptoms like a daily morning cough that produces mucus and persistent chest symptoms throughout the day.

While asthma and COPD both result from inflammation and hyperactivity, their root causes are different. Inflammation from asthma is generally a response to a trigger such as allergens, cold air, stress, environmental pollutants, exercise or even a strong perfume. Airways become inflamed and irritable in response to the trigger making it more difficult to move air in and out, which leads to asthma symptoms.

For people with asthma, removing the trigger can oftentimes relieve symptoms and the lung inflammation can usually be treated successfully with anti-inflammatory medications, like inhaled corticosteroids.

Similar to asthma, COPD also occurs with long-term inflammation. However, in contrast, COPD inflammation is in response to lung damage following exposure to certain irritants – most commonly chronic cigarette smoking. This exposure and damage leads to airway obstruction and hyperinflation that does not respond well to anti-inflammatory medication.

This all means that, while airflow in asthma is mostly reversible, airflow in COPD is only partially reversible, at best. A COPD patient will rarely go a day without symptoms — even if they're not in an acute state. An asthma patient will likely be virtually symptom-free between asthma attacks.

A final key difference is age when diagnosis is made. Asthma is commonly diagnosed in childhood or adolescence; COPD is usually diagnosed later in life.  

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