How to tell the lung conditions apart
When you have a lung disease such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, your biggest concern is breathing better. But how do you know which disease you have when many COPD and asthma differences are subtle?
COPD, primary caused by smoking, is a catchall term for bronchitis, emphysema and, in some cases, chronic asthma. The common denominator for all of these conditions is airflow obstruction. Patients experience coughing, thick mucus or phlegm, and shortness of breath. COPD flare-ups can be brought on by irritants in the air, or bacteria or virus in the respiratory tract. Symptoms for COPD, which is usually diagnosed in middle or older age, are continual and progressive.
Asthma, largely a childhood disease than can continue into adult life, is inflammation and narrowing of the airways. It has a strong allergic component with individual triggers, including respiratory infections, exercise, pollen, household mold, smoke and weather extremes causing asthma attacks. Asthma has no known cause, but risk factors include relatives with the disease, being overweight, and smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke. Symptoms include wheezing and chest tightness, night coughing, shortness of breath, and pain or pressure. Asthma is completely reversible. With appropriate treatment, a person can have near-normal lung function and live symptom free.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 15 million adults in this country have COPD. It kills more than 130,000 people each year, making it the more ominous of the two diseases. Asthma affects nearly 19 million adults and 7 million children, but less than 3,500 people die from it each year.
An accurate diagnosis with respiratory conditions is critical. That’s why anyone age 5 or older should have their lung function tested with spirometry, which involves breathing into a small apparatus, the spirometer, to determine how much air is inhaled and exhaled, and how quickly. To confirm the diagnosis and stage of the disease, other evaluations may be needed.