Is It Asthma or COPD? Telling the Difference Between These Two Conditions

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are two of the most common lung diseases in the United States. They each affect millions of Americans.

Both asthma and COPD can cause breathing problems and coughing. But while the two conditions may look similar, there are key differences.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma is a chronic disease that causes inflammation or narrowing of the airways in your lungs. That makes it hard for you to breathe and causes symptoms like shortness of breath, coughing, or wheezing.

Different factors can trigger asthma symptoms, including allergens like dust mites, pollen, or smoke. Viral infections, medications, exercise, and even stress also cause symptoms. Different people have different asthma triggers.

Almost 25 million Americans have asthma. That’s about 1 in 13 people, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Most people with asthma first experience it during childhood.

Asthma symptoms

The most common symptoms of asthma include:

  • Chest tightness.
  • Coughing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing.

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, these symptoms are common with other lung conditions, including COPD. But certain factors can help identify them as asthma symptoms:

  • They can go away and come back, even on the same day.
  • They can occur because of many different triggers, depending on the person.
  • They often are worse at night or in the morning.
  • Viral infections can cause them to flare up or become worse.

Asthma treatment

There is no cure for asthma, but treatment can help you manage it and avoid major asthma attacks.

Treatment for asthma typically involves medication that includes:

  • Quick-relief medications, which treat sudden asthma symptoms. You also will receive an inhaler, which you should carry with you at all times in case of an asthma attack.
  • Controller medications, which help manage asthma over time by fixing problems with your airways.

Know your triggers and try to avoid them. It may be hard to get rid of them entirely, but you can try to limit your exposure as much as possible.

If you think you have asthma, talk to your doctor about getting tested and treated. Treatment is critical because asthma can be deadly if left untreated.

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What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a group of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD damages the airways or otherwise blocks normal air flow in the lungs, making it hard to breathe. It is a progressive disease: Symptoms may take time to develop, but they get worse over time.

More than 15 million Americans have COPD, according to the CDC. It is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Cigarette smoke is a leading cause of COPD in the United States. Other causes may include air pollution, genetics, and respiratory infections.

People with COPD are at risk of developing other health conditions, like arthritis, heart disease, stroke, and more, the CDC says.

COPD symptoms

Common symptoms of COPD include:

  • Chronic cough.
  • Fatigue.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Tightness in chest.
  • Wheezing.

With COPD, you may find it hard to perform physical activities like climbing the stairs or other daily routines. Like asthma, certain triggers such as cold air, illness, or poor air quality can cause your symptoms to flare up.

If you have symptoms of COPD, talk to your doctor about getting tested. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you slow the progression of the disease.

COPD treatment

There is no cure for COPD. Because it’s a progressive disease, symptoms tend to get worse over time. But treatment can help you manage your symptoms.

Your specific treatment depends on your symptoms and the amount of damage to your lungs. Treatment options may include:

  • Medication. Like with asthma, medication can include quick-relief and control drugs. They also can take a variety of forms. Your doctor may prescribe you an inhaler to use when you have a COPD flare-up.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation. Pulmonary rehabilitation is a treatment program that can help you manage COPD symptoms. It may include education on breathing techniques, exercise, nutrition, and more.
  • Quitting smoking. If you smoke and have COPD, you must stop because of the damage it does to your lungs. Also avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Supplemental oxygen. Depending on how severe your symptoms are, you may need to use a portable oxygen tank.

The CDC recommends people with COPD get the COVID-19, flu, and pneumococcal vaccines.

Talk to your doctor about what COPD treatment is right for you. It’s important to get treatment because COPD is a deadly disease.

How Are Asthma and COPD Different?

Asthma and COPD can cause similar symptoms, but they are different conditions. COPD refers to a group of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Asthma is one specific lung disease.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology (AAAAI) highlights two major differences between asthma and COPD:

  • Smoking history. Smoking is much more linked with COPD than with asthma, especially in the United States.
  • Symptoms. Asthma and COPD cause shortness of breath and coughing, but other symptoms occur more often in one condition than the other. A cough with mucus is more common with COPD. If you have chest tightness at night, wheezing, hay fever, or eczema, asthma is the more likely cause.

Only a doctor can tell the difference between asthma and COPD by reviewing your history, symptoms, physical exam, and tests. So, if in doubt, get tested.

Can You Have Both Asthma and COPD?

It is rare for a person to have both asthma and COPD, but it is possible. When someone has both asthma and COPD, they have a condition called asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS).

People with ACOS may not realize it, according to the ACAAI. Because the symptoms of asthma and COPD overlap, they may think they have just one condition and not both.

The ACAAI recommends talking to your doctor about getting tested for ACOS if you have severe asthma or COPD.

What Should I Do If I Think I Have Asthma or COPD?

Talk to your doctor if you show signs of COPD, asthma, or any other lung condition. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you manage your condition and improve your quality of life.

The lung experts at UPMC help to diagnose, treat, and manage a wide variety of breathing conditions. To find lung care near you, visit our website.

American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Asthma vs. COPD. Link

American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology, Asthma-COPD Overlap. Link

Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, How Is Asthma Treated? Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Basics About COPD. Link

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Most Recent National Asthma Data. Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, What Is Asthma? Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Asthma, Symptoms. Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, Asthma, Treatment and Action Plan. Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, What Is COPD? Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD, Symptoms. Link

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, COPD, Treatment. Link

About Pulmonology

For people with breathing problems, allergies, and other lung conditions or diseases, UPMC’s pulmonary experts can help. Our Comprehensive Lung Center provides cutting-edge diagnosis and treatment for diseases of the respiratory and pulmonary systems, whether the condition is acute or chronic. We also operate specialty centers for cystic fibrosis, asthma, COPD and emphysema, pulmonary hypertension, lung transplants, interstitial lung diseases, and sleep disorders. Find an expert near you.