Know the differences between COPD and asthma to get the help you need

Wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath are all common symptoms of both asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). Understanding the differences and similarities between these two conditions can help you follow appropriate treatment protocols to improve your quality of life.

Although neither disorder is curable, both are still treatable. Asthma is considered reversible, whereas COPD is viewed as partially reversible. This means that taken properly, medications can temporarily return lungs with asthma to normal lung function. With COPD, a certain degree of lung function is permanently lost, even with optimal medication use.

In general, asthma is a disease of long-term inflammation – similar to a rash in the lungs – that can be triggered by many things, the most common being dust mites, molds, pet dander and pollens. COPD is not as often triggered by allergies and does not respond as well to anti-inflammatory medication.

The lungs of patients with COPD have permanent damage. This includes chronic inflammation and irreversible injury to alveolar structures and sometimes chronic mucous plugging of the airways. COPD is a progressive disease – symptoms become more severe as a person ages.


Cartoon with check mark

  • understand asthma symptoms
  • understand COPD symptoms
  • know the difference between COPD and asthma
  • understand similarities in the management of asthma and COPD
  • take steps to prevent COPD flare-ups and asthma attacks

Cartoon with x mark

  • expose your lungs to harmful conditions
  • dismiss symptoms
  • continue to smoke
  • procrastinate in seeking medical attention
  • underestimate the benefits of support groups

Scott Cerreta, BS, RRT‘s recommendation to ExpertBeacon readers: Do

Do understand asthma symptoms

Most people with asthma have asthma attacks, separated by periods without symptoms. Some individuals experience episodes of increased shortness of breath, with wheezing or coughing or both. These asthma attacks can last for hours or up to weeks, and can become deadly if airflow is severely obstructed. With proper treatment, asthma symptoms can be well controlled.

Symptoms include:

  • Cough with or without phlegm.
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with exercise or activity.
  • Wheezing, which is episodic, is often worse at night or early morning, and gets better with the use of a bronchodilator.

Do understand COPD symptoms

Symptoms of COPD don’t usually appear until significant lung damage has occurred – and worsen over time. Typical onset is in adulthood. In chronic bronchitis, the main symptom is a cough that occurs at least three months a year for two consecutive years. Other signs and symptoms of COPD include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • A chronic cough that won’t go away and may produce mucous
  • Feeling tired or with increased shortness of breath, especially when exercising or performing daily activities.
  • Tightness in the chest

Do know the difference between COPD and asthma

People with COPD often start their day with a “productive” cough, meaning they bring up phlegm, with symptoms affecting everyday life. People with asthma tend to have a dry cough (unless they have an active lung or sinus infection) and wheeze. Other differences include:

  • Asthma is most often diagnosed in childhood, while COPD is most often diagnosed in individuals over 40.
  • COPD can be caused by a genetically inherited disorder, Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency occurs with the lack of a protective protein causing severe lung damage as young as age 20.
  • People with asthma often have gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), while people with COPD may have GERD and are more likely to have congestive heart failure.
  • COPD leads to a progressive loss of lung function, while asthma does not.
  • A barrel-shaped chest due to the trapping of air is more characteristic of COPD than asthma.

Do understand similarities in the management of asthma and COPD

Because asthma is often triggered by allergies and COPD is associated with smoking, efforts to control allergies and to quit smoking are beneficial in managing both of these diseases. Both asthma and COPD can be treated with bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids.

Bronchodilators help the airways to relax and open up. Steroids help reduce the inflammation in the airways. Your physician is the most qualified individual to help you decide your course of treatment.

Do take steps to prevent COPD flare-ups and asthma attacks

COPD is a preventable disease. Although primary prevention hinges on tobacco cessation strategies, secondary prevention of COPD centers on early diagnosis, risk factor modification and adherence to treatment. While there is no cure for asthma or COPD, asthma attacks and COPD flare-ups can be prevented or reduced by taking medication daily and avoiding triggers.

Scott Cerreta, BS, RRT‘s professional advice to ExpertBeacon readers: Don't

Do not expose your lungs to harmful conditions

Common airway irritants include smoke, aerosol sprays, perfumes, dust and air pollution. These substances can irritate sensitive airways. Cigarette smoke is the primary cause of COPD and a serious asthma trigger – do not allow smoking in your home or car and always look for non-smoking sections in public areas.

Do not dismiss symptoms

Shortness of breath in normal activities and frequent coughing are not signs of aging. These symptoms should not be ignored and you should contact your physician to find out what they could mean. You could have COPD, asthma or another medical condition.

Do not continue to smoke

Smoking causes lung damage – period. A long-term history of smoking is very common in people living with COPD, and continued smoking worsens the permanent lung damage. People with asthma have a 12-fold increase of developing COPD later in life if they smoke.

Do not procrastinate in seeking medical attention

If you suspect either COPD or asthma, see your doctor who will listen to your chest for the wheezing of asthma and/or the reduced breath sounds associated with COPD. X-rays, CT scans and pulmonary function testing can further differentiate asthma from COPD.

Do not underestimate the benefits of support groups

Whether you have COPD or asthma, it’s important to understand that you are not alone. Try to join support groups online or in your community in order to learn more about the disease and new treatments. There are many groups dedicated to educating, engaging and empowering individuals who live with lung disease.


Asthma is a disease of the lungs marked by hyper sensitivity and chronic inflammation that responds well to treatment. COPD is often caused by prolonged exposure to lung irritants and permanent lung damage which does not respond as well to treatment as the condition progresses. Neither is curable, but both are treatable. Knowing the symptoms and treatments for each is important for improving quality of life. Many people with asthma can be virtually symptom-free when properly treated. COPD is a progressive disease – symptoms become more severe as a person ages. With proper maintenance treatment, people with COPD can experience some improvement in symptoms and slow further loss of lung function.

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