If you feel short of breath while exercising, or you're prone to fits of coughing, you may be wondering if asthma or COPD could be to blame. Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are often confused or lumped together because they share some of the same symptoms.
Wheezing and shortness of breath are symptoms of both asthma and COPD. But wheezing doesn't necessarily mean you have asthma or COPD. You have to dig a little deeper to determine if either condition could be at work.
Here are some key similarities between the two conditions and how to tell them apart.
What are asthma and COPD?
Asthma is a chronic lung disease that often appears during childhood. It may be reversed over time, but many people have asthma for life. Asthma causes tightening and inflammation in airways and constriction in lungs. When the airways become narrower, it results in shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.
These symptoms become especially severe during asthma attacks. Asthma attacks may be brought on by a number of triggers such as allergies, exercise, irritating fragrances and lung infections. Attacks can be life-threatening, but they're usually treatable at home with rescue inhalers like albuterol.
COPD is a group of chronic lung diseases, including bronchitis and emphysema, which are often caused by smoking. Most of these chronic lung diseases don't appear until after age 40.
- Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing cough, which produces large amounts of mucus.
- Emphysema involves the damage and scarring of tiny air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli. When alveoli are destroyed, it's harder for your lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
There are treatments for COPD, but there's no known cure. Many of the same triggers that cause asthma attacks could also lead to COPD exacerbations, or symptom flare-ups. Exacerbations can be serious and require a hospital stay; with each flare, COPD tends to become a little worse.
Are COPD and asthma diagnosed the same way?
Some of the same tests are used to diagnose both asthma and COPD. For example, your lung specialist will ask about your symptoms, listen to your heart and lungs and have you complete a pulmonary function test (PFT).
A PFT involves taking a deep breath, and then exhaling as long and hard as you can into a special tube. The tube is attached to a computer, which measures your lung strength and capacity, or the amount of air you're able to exhale. If you don't score well on your PFT, your doctor will give you an inhaled medication to help open up your airways, and then let you redo the test. People with asthma typically score better after taking the medication, while those with COPD show little or no improvement.
Your lung specialist may also order blood tests, as well as a chest X-ray to determine whether another condition like pneumonia could be causing your symptoms.
Are both conditions preventable?
COPD is largely preventable since smoking causes 80 percent of cases. You can't prevent asthma, but you can limit the number of attacks you experience by:
- Avoiding triggers
- Getting your annual flu shot
- Taking your daily, or maintenance inhalers
Smoking can't cause asthma, but it can trigger attacks, make it harder to fight lung infections and increase your risk of developing COPD. If you have asthma, cigarette smoke is more likely to damage your lungs, putting you at a higher risk for COPD.
Can asthma cause COPD?
Asthma doesn’t cause COPD. However, people with severe asthma whose symptoms don’t improve with treatment are considered to have a type of COPD. People with poorly controlled asthma as children are more prone to this condition as adults.
How asthma and COPD are treated
Quitting smoking is the number one treatment for COPD and a key part of controlling asthma symptoms. For help quitting tobacco:
- Call the national Smokefree Hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669)
- Visit Sharecare’s quit smoking page for tips and support
- Reach out to an addiction specialist for personalized help
Asthma and COPD also share some — but not all — medications. Some inhaler therapies are used to treat both conditions, including bronchodilators, which help open airways, and steroid inhalers.
Visit your lung specialist at least once a year to determine which medications are right for you and to update your med list as symptoms change. Individuals with both asthma and COPD often need a combination of inhalers, which may vary from season-to-season or depending on how advanced your condition is.