Allercy and Asthma Health
The Official Publication of AAN - MA

What's the Main Difference Between Asthma and COPD?

Summer Camp

By Jakki Grimball, MA, RRT, AE-C

Although similar in some ways, asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are two different and prevalent respiratory conditions. Both have some of the same symptoms, including coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. It is important to have the correct diagnosis in each of these conditions for proper management and treatment. The only way to get the correct diagnosis is through testing ordered by your doctor.

COPD is actually an umbrella term for emphysema and chronic bronchitis, both of which are progressive respiratory diseases. COPD causes a progressive decrease in airflow, changes to the shape of the airways, inflammation of lung tissue, and in emphysema, a loss of elasticity in lung tissue. COPD most often occurs in people who smoke and therefore affects adults rather than children.

Asthma, on the other hand, is often diagnosed in children and adolescents. Asthma is not a progressive disease if managed and treated properly. However, if left untreated over time it can be a risk factor for developing COPD. Asthma can often be related to allergens or triggers, such as dust, dust mites, pet hair, smoke, and pollens. People who have a family history of asthma are more likely to develop asthma themselves.

Treating asthma and COPD can be similar. The first step in treating both conditions is to quit smoking. People with COPD can slow the progression of the disease by quitting smoking as quickly as possible.

The next step in treating asthma is to avoid and/or decrease exposure to things that trigger asthma. Also of great importance in treating and managing asthma is to take your daily medications as prescribed and continue to take those medications even when no symptoms are present.

Common asthma treatment includes:

  • Quick-relief medications, often called rescue medications (short-acting bronchodilators), such as ProAir®, Proventil®, Ventolin®, and Xopenex®
  • Allergy medications
  • Long-term controller medications, such as Singular® (Montelukast), long-acting bronchodilators, inhaled corticosteroids, and combination inhalers (long-acting bronchodilators, for instance)

The main objective in treating COPD is to prevent it from getting worse. Quitting smoking is essential, as is avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke. Nicotine replacement products and medications have proven to be successful in smoking cessation. It is also important to take steps to avoid lung infections, get the flu shot annually, and get the pneumonia vaccine.

Other common treatments for COPD include:

  • Some of the same medications listed above, such as bronchodilators, combination inhalers, inhaled corticosteroids, and at times, oral steroids
  • Lung therapies, including pulmonary rehabilitation programs that include exercise training, breathing re-training, nutritional education, and ways to improve quality of life
  • Oxygen therapy is another lung therapy that helps improve quality of life
  • Surgery, if your physician finds it is medically necessary and beneficial

Both asthma and COPD are long-term conditions that can’t be cured. Asthma can be easily controlled daily, which leads to long-term management of the condition. COPD progressively worsens over time and in the later stages is often difficult to control. The important point is to stick to the treatment plan prescribed by your doctor. Adhering to the plan helps to decrease symptoms and complications.

Jakki Grimball is a member of the American Association for Respiratory Care from South Carolina, where she is disease management supervisor for the BlueChoice HealthPlan in Columbia.
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