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The Differences Between Asthma and COPD

Monday 13 April 2020
Chronic Lung Disorders

Table of Contents


I. Chronic respiratory disease overview

II. Differences between Asthma and COPD

a. Similarities between Asthma and COPD

b. Differences between Asthma and COPD

III. Treatments

a. Bronchodilators

b. Corticosteroids

c. Combination inhalers

d. Quick-Relief Inhalers


Chronic Respiratory Diseases

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are the two most common chronic respiratory diseases and affect a combined 40 million Americans. [1] [2] Chronic respiratory diseases (CRDs) are long-term or recurring diseases that affect the airways or other parts of your lungs. 

Both asthma and COPD are incurable but both conditions can be managed to improve people’s quality of life. Medications like Spiriva (tiotropium) can help control symptoms of respiratory diseases. Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are both chronic respiratory problems and have similar symptoms. 

Most people with asthma will not develop COPD and many people who suffer from COPD do not have asthma, although it is possible to have both.  Asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS) is the name given when someone suffers from both conditions. COPD is often developed later in life so the chance of getting this dual-disease increases as you get older. [3]

Man suffering chest tightness outside his house

Asthma and COPD

As both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are both respiratory diseases, there are many similarities between the conditions. However, they are separate ailments and you should know how to distinguish between them. 

a. Similarities between asthma and COPD

Asthma and COPD share several similarities. Both diseases cause swelling in your airways which can make breathing more difficult. Since both diseases cause your airways to swell, they share a lot of the same symptoms. 

Common symptoms of both asthma and COPD include shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, coughing and difficulty breathing during exercise. These similar symptoms can make it difficult to distinguish between the two diseases.

Both of these chronic respiratory diseases can be treated and managed with medication to generally improve the quality of life of patients. The typical way to treat these conditions is with one or more inhalers. These inhalers may be similar for the two diseases but are often used at different times through the conditions.

b. Differences between asthma and COPD

Although they share many of the same symptoms, asthma and COPD are separate ailments. 

COPD is the name given to a group of lung diseases which include chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD typically starts in middle age or later life and is often caused by smoking or breathing in pollution and chemicals. Asthma often begins in childhood and you are more likely to have it if one of your parents also has asthma. Although asthma can also be caused by lung infections, allergies, smoking or pollution. [4] 

Lit cigarette balanced on a wall

A key difference between the two diseases is that asthma often causes sudden attacks of wheezing and chest tightness. In asthma, breathing can return to normal between attacks. Asthma attacks are often triggered by exercise, allergens or cold air. [5] Typically, COPD symptoms are more constant and people who suffer from COPD are less likely to have normal breathing. [4] [6] Usually, COPD aggravations are caused by pollution or infection such as the flu.

Although neither asthma or COPD can be cured, asthma is more easily controlled while COPD usually worsens over time. [5]  

Treatments

Most asthma and COPD medications are inhalers as the medication can directly reach your lungs. Although there may be some overlap, different types of inhalers are usually prescribed to treat the two different diseases.

Your doctor will usually start with a physical exam to diagnose your condition. This can include looking at your nose and throat, listening to your lungs with a stethoscope and asking you to blow into a device. Doctors will also usually ask questions about your medical history including your symptoms and family history. [4]

Black and white photograph of a stethoscope

Most asthma and COPD Inhalers are either long-term inhalers or quick-relief inhalers. Long-term inhalers should be used every day in order to reduce your symptoms. 

a. Bronchodilators

Bronchodilator inhalers are used to help open up your airways and increase airflow. These inhalers are one of the first treatments for COPD and may be used to relieve asthma symptoms. Common bronchodilators include Spiriva (tiotropium), Atrovent (ipratropium) and Foradil (formoterol). [7]

b. Corticosteroids

Corticosteroid inhalers are long-term inhalers that work by reducing inflammation, swelling, and tightening in your airways. Corticosteroids are the most effective and commonly used long-term asthma medications. Corticosteroids often need to be used for several months to be most effective but may also be used to treat severe COPD. Common corticosteroid inhalers include Qvar (beclomethasone), Flovent (fluticasone) and Pulmicort (budesonide). [7]

c. Combination inhalers

Often your doctor may prescribe you to use a combination inhaler. These may be a combination of a bronchodilator and a corticosteroid or even a combination of two bronchodilators.  Common combination inhalers include Advair (fluticasone/salmeterol), Symbicort (budesonide/formoterol) and Breo (fluticasone/vilanterol). [7]

d. Quick-relief inhalers

Your doctor may prescribe you a quick-relief or rescue inhaler to be used in an emergency situation. You may be prescribed a rescue inhaler to use alongside a long-term inhaler. Ventolin HFA (albuterol) is a common rescue inhaler. [7]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.