Is It Asthma or COPD? How to Tell the Difference

Health Minute     Spring 2019

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are often mistaken for one another. That’s understandable. These two lung diseases share some of the same symptoms: wheezing, chronic coughing and shortness of breath.

To further cloud the distinction, about 40 percent of people who have COPD also have asthma. Asthma and COPD share some of the same risk factors such as smoking tobacco, exposure to air pollutants at home and work, genetics and respiratory infections. And asthma is considered a risk factor that increases the chances of developing COPD.

But asthma and COPD are two distinct diseases. Here are two distinct differences.Is It Asthma or COPD - How to Tell the Difference - In Content  

  • Age at diagnosis: Asthma, in most cases, is diagnosed in childhood. COPD symptoms usually first appear after the age of 40 and, in most cases, among current or former smokers.
  • Disease triggers: Asthma is usually triggered by exposure to allergens, cold air and exercise. COPD is primarily aggravated by respiratory tract infections, such as pneumonia and the flu, and exposure to environmental pollutants.

A third difference is that COPD ranks high — in third place — on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s list of leading causes of death, after heart disease and cancer. The good news is that with proper treatment, such as quitting smoking, airway-opening medications and avoidance of irritants and allergens, people with asthma and COPD can live more comfortably.

About 40 percent of people who have COPD also have asthma.

Still, neither disease is curable. Managing asthma properly can prevent flare-ups and allow normal activities. Damage from COPD can’t be reversed, but treatment can slow the disease’s progression.