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What Are the Differences and Similarities between COPD and Asthma?


The CDC estimates that nearly 25 million, or 1 in 12, people have asthma.

Unfortunately, that number is only increasing as time goes on. This lifelong disease ranges from mild to severe in nature, depending on the age and symptoms of the asthma sufferer. While asthma may seem like a simple disease, many of those who suffer from asthma are misdiagnosed. Asthma is often confused with COPD because of the similarity of their symptoms. Without a proper diagnosis, it’s impossible to treat the illness properly. There are several distinguishable differences between asthma and COPD. While it’s possible to have COPD and asthma together, it’s important to understand the symptoms and effects of each disease individually in order to be aware of crossover complications.

What is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that limits the amount of air that passes through the lungs. Someone who doesn’t suffer from asthma doesn’t struggle to breathe. Their airways aren’t irritated, allowing air to flow freely in and out as they breathe. Those who have asthma suffer from swollen or inflamed airways. Environmental elements, such as allergies, pollution, and dust, can aggravate those airways even more, preventing easy airflow. If triggered by the environment, the swelling around the lungs increase, making breathing next to impossible. This incident is known as an asthma attack. In many cases, relief from the attack can only be attained with nebulizers or medication. Asthma isn’t a condition that progressively worsens. Instead, each sufferer will go through flare-ups, depending on their circumstances. It’s also possible for sufferers to go an extended period of time without any symptoms.

While there is no cure, those with asthma can reduce their risk of attacks by avoiding triggers and staying conscious of the air quality around them.

What is COPD?

COPD is similar to asthma in that it’s a chronic disease with no current cure.  There are, however, a few key differences between the two. COPD, or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is a term that’s often used to describe progressive lung disease, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Symptoms differ in every patient, making it difficult to diagnose. In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates that nearly 24 million Americans suffer from COPD, but half of that number doesn’t realize that they have it. Some may experience wheezing or tightness in the chest while others may feel increasingly breathless.

No matter what the symptoms, in order for a respiratory disease to be considered COPD, lung function must continue to decrease.

How are COPD and Asthma Diagnosis Related

Because COPD and asthma are two separate diseases, it’s possible to have both simultaneously. When a patient shows symptoms of both illnesses, it’s known as COPD overlap syndrome, or ACOS. While those with ACOS tend to be younger, it can develop at any age. Those with a family history of allergies or asthma, who experienced respiratory infections as a child, or who smoke regularly are especially susceptible ACOS. Through imaging tests, including CT scans and MRIs, and also pulmonary function tests, physicians can determine whether or not your lung function indicates that ACOS is present.

Those with ACOS may experience intermittent symptoms, similar to those experienced with asthma. However, over time, their lung function decreases, similar to what happens in patients with COPD. Because of this, ACOS is a serious diagnosis. If not treated properly, it could affect every day activities and reduce life expectancy.

To treat an ACOS diagnosis, the symptoms of each disease must be handled separately. Your physician may recommend typical asthma treatments, like avoiding certain allergens, taking specific medications, and preventing illness. On top of regular asthma treatments, pulmonary rehabilitation and disease management training may recommend to reduce the COPD symptoms. Regular checkups with respiratory therapists, physical therapists, and general physicians is also recommended to frequently gauge the progress of ACOS.

The link between COPD and asthma is often hard to understand. Because the two are so similar, it’s easy to confuse them. The first step in determining whether you’re suffering from a serious respiratory disease is to note your symptoms. Whether you’re experiencing frequent shortness of breath, chest pain, or difficulty breathing, it’s important to consult with a physician as soon as possible. With the right diagnosis and treatment plan, it’s possible to manage your symptoms and experience relief.

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