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Difference Between COPD and Asthma

Difference Between COPD and Asthma

This write up attempts to put forward the difference between COPD and asthma, by presenting to you some basic facts about both the medical conditions.
Rajib Singha
Last Updated: Jan 21, 2018
COPD is the short for what is known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This name does not refer to a single condition, but a group of diseases of the lungs; emphysema and chronic asthmatic bronchitis being the main ones. These diseases keep the affected person from breathing in and out normally thus, they cause airflow obstruction. As the name suggests, it is a long-term complication that cannot be reversed once it has set in. So the treatment aims to control the symptoms, and minimize or slow down any further damage. While, asthma is also characterized by difficulty in breathing, and it is a life-long condition having no cure for it. So even the treatment for it focuses on managing the symptoms.
COPD vs Asthma
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
The Symptoms
One of the main challenges in treating COPD is getting it diagnosed at an early stage. This is because of its gradually worsening nature, which causes it to remain hidden until the lungs have been damaged significantly. In other words, the occurrence of any symptoms may indicate that the disease has already reached an advanced stage. So then, the symptoms which do occur, may include:
  • Shortness of breath, which worsens with activity such as exercising or moving around
  • A chronic cough that won't go away; a classic symptom of COPD. Most often, the cough is productive, thus produces phlegm
  • Chest infections may be common, especially during winters
  • Chest tightness may also be a common COPD sign

The Causes
This condition is the result of long-term smoking, and exposure to irritants that get into the system through air. Speaking of smoking, more often than not, it comes out as the most common cause of COPD. If 10 people with this disease are considered, then it is most likely for 9 of them to have been or are, long-term smokers. The chemicals in tobacco smoke damage the lining of the airways in the lungs, thus making them inflamed. And prolong smoking eventually damages the airways, which is irreversible. People who are exposed to passive smoking also stay equally vulnerable to develop this incurable condition. People who continuously get exposed to airborne irritants such as grains, coal, dust, fumes, and other chemicals, are also at risk, even if they are non-smokers.

As I have already cited above, no cure exists for COPD, but treatment does make the symptoms more bearable, and the condition to slow down in its progress.
  • The first and foremost measure that has to be undertaken in the treatment is shunning smoking for good. Doing this will keep your lungs from suffering complete damage and the patient from losing his/her ability to breathe. However, quitting smoking never comes easy, especially for those who have been smoking since long. So consulting a doctor for the same would be a wise step to take.
  • While the patient tries to quit smoking, he may be advised to take certain medications. Two classes of medications known as bronchodilators and corticosteroids (inhalers) are administered to help the patient breathe better. Also, since the condition can get aggravated by bacterial infections like pneumonia, influenza, etc., doctors may also chose to provide the patient with antibiotics.
  • Besides these, patients may also require to undertake oxygen therapy if they have persistently low oxygen levels in their blood.
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation therapy is also included in the treatment. It encompasses education about the condition, dedicated exercises for the lungs, and nutrition advice.
  • And when the conservative treatment methods do not prove helpful in reducing or managing the symptoms, then surgery may be implemented.
The Symptoms
Symptoms of asthma are not frequent. Some people may have mild symptoms, while some, severe. Also, as it has been reported by most patients, during the time between the attacks, they experience no trouble in their breathing. More often than not, people experience an asthma attack while exercising, or when exposed to allergens or other triggers. The common symptoms may include:
  • Breathing difficulty
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing
  • Coughing, more at night and early morning
  • Another classic symptom of asthma is coughing or wheezing that worsens by infections such as cold or flu

The Causes
Unlike in COPD, doctors aren't sure what causes asthma. But they assume that environmental factors in conjunction with certain genetic factors may have a major contribution in the development of this respiratory problem in people. Although not specific causes, scientists have been able to determine the triggering factors which can set off an asthma attack.
  • Allergens like dust, pollen, dander, dust mites, mold, etc., can easily trigger an asthma attack, and so can a food allergy
  • Common cold and other respiratory infections commonly trigger asthma symptoms
  • Psychological triggers such as strong emotions and stress may also do the same
  • Breathing in cold air, and having diseases such as Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD) can make a person susceptible to have an asthma attack
  • Other risk factors may include being born prematurely, having a family history of asthma, and getting exposed to air pollutants and irritants

The Treatment
Asthma requires long-term treatment, given to its irreversible nature. So the main aim is to prevent and control asthma attacks. For prevention, the patient has to recognize what triggers an attack in him/her, and for controlling the condition, various medications may have to be administered. Speaking of medications, they come in two types; one for long-term control, and one meant for quick relief during an attack. Doctors would usually discourage patients to use quick relief medications very often, if the long-term ones, which are needed to be taken everyday, are working fine.
So as it can be inferred from the above explanation, the main difference between COPD and asthma lies in the nature of the cause and triggers of the conditions. Also, asthmatics, with proper treatment may remain symptoms-free between attacks, but those with COPD, may be plagued with persistent symptoms. But despite the two conditions being different from each other, they are often mistaken for the other. In many instances, a patient who is actually having COPD, got treated for asthma. So a proper medical diagnosis is to be put into place for detecting the diseases, and treating it with the right procedures.