COPD vs Asthma: How To Tell The Difference

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma are troubling conditions that impact your lungs. There isn’t a cure for either, which means those who are diagnosed with these conditions must learn how to manage them for a  lifetime.

Although COPD and asthma are closely related, there are important differences that define each disease. It’s important to understand what each condition involves and how each can affect you differently.

What Is The Difference Between COPD and Asthma?

Both COPD and asthma are chronic breathing conditions. They make it harder for air to flow in and out of your lungs, but in different ways. 

COPD is the name for a group of lung diseases that all obstruct airflow from the lungs. The most common conditions that fall under COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Each case is  different for each patient, but one of the most common effects of COPD is feeling like you’re breathing through a small straw.

Asthma is also an obstruction of the lungs that occurs when the airways swell up. This narrowed passageway makes it more difficult for air to travel from the nose and mouth to the lungs. It’s a scary situation that makes people feel like they’re drowning in air, and it can be deadly if a patient isn’t treated fast enough. 

The good news is that both of these conditions are treatable, though it’s possible for them to become life threatening if patients aren’t fully aware of their risk factors and treatments.


The symptoms of COPD and asthma are very similar, which is why you might have a hard time determining  which condition you have.

Some shared symptoms of COPD and asthma are:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest

Each condition also exhibits its own specific symptoms.

One COPD specific symptom is having an excess amount of mucus. You might have to clear your throat because of a build-up in your lungs, or have a cough that produces white, yellow or greenish coloured mucus. Other symptoms may include blueness of the lips or fingernail beds, lack of energy, frequent respiratory infections or unintended weight loss.

Asthmatic symptoms can be sporadic and range from mild to severe. People with asthma might have trouble sleeping due to breathing problems. Asthma attacks can be situational and occur directly from exercise, workplace irritants or allergens. Iit varies from person to person, so attacks can also be experienced at random.


For 90 percent of people who develop COPD, the cause is long-term smoking. Inhaling pollutants such as cigarettes, pipes, cigars and second-hand smoke causes damage to the lungs. When this happens, white blood cells appear in the area and release enzymes that destroy lung tissue. 

Similarly, other contributing factors to COPD include fumes, chemicals and dust that can appear in work environments. COPD is highly preventable and you significantly reduce your chances of developing this condition by not smoking.

Unlike COPD, there is no definitive cause for developing asthma. Once you’re diagnosed with asthma, you can start to understand what will trigger its symptoms. Allergens such as grass, trees, dust mites and other irritants in the air are known triggers for asthmatic patients. Flu-like illnesses or respiratory infections, strenuous exercise, extreme weather conditions and strong change in emotions can also lead to breathing problems that induce an asthma attack.

Risk Factors

By understanding the risk factors for COPD and asthma, you have a better chance at managing symptoms and preventing problems with your lungs. The risk factors differ between these two chronic conditions.

Smokers are at the highest risk of developing COPD, and your chances increase as you grow older. Long-term exposure to air pollution, secondhand smoke and dust and other work-related chemicals can also cause COPD. 

Another possible way to contract COPD is by having an alpha-1 deficiency. It’s a rare and genetic form of COPD that reduces the body’s ability to produce alpha-1 proteins that protects the lungs.

Anyone of any age can develop asthma. It’s common in young people, and it’s the leading chronic disease in children. Adult men and women are both vulnerable to asthma, but it’s more common in women. African-Americans in the U.S. are three times more likely to die from asthma compared to other races and ethnicity.

The chances of having an asthma attack increase when allergens or irritating pollutants enter the lungs. Other possible triggers include strenuous exercise, certain illnesses or due to a strong change in emotions.


There are no cures for COPD or asthma, but both conditions are highly treatable. People can live normal lives as long as they know how to manage their symptoms and understand what to do in an emergency.

Patient experiences with COPD are all different, which means there isn’t one treatment that is the solution for everyone. Your doctor will suggest a number of ways to manage your COPD based on your unique symptoms and condition. Since there isn’t a cure, these treatments are mainly meant to increase your quality of life.

Pulmonary rehab is something that can help you to rebuild strength through a combination of education, exercise, nutrition advice and counseling. Learning how to take care of your body can help to ease symptoms and hopefully extend your life.

Very severe cases of COPD may need lung surgery to improve breathing. It’s a serious procedure and not all patients will qualify for this type of procedure. If your condition worsens and it’s consistently difficult to breath comfortably, you might benefit from supplemental oxygen.

Since asthma attacks can be unpredictable, people might panic and end up worsening the condition. Stay calm as much as you can and use the medications prescribed to you. Most people with asthma are given inhalers that act as a quick way to relax airway muscles and help you breathe during an attack. In the rare case that symptoms don’t improve with an inhaler, you should seek immediate help from emergency services.

Carrying an inhaler with you is the best way to respond to an asthma attack. Understanding your triggers is the best way to avoid needing to use an inhaler.

When To See A Doctor

If you are constantly coughing, wheezing or have shortness of breath for an extended period of time, schedule an appointment with your doctor as soon as you can. The faster you learn about your COPD, the easier it will be to start managing the condition.

You’ll need to seek immediate medical attention if you’re having trouble breathing because you won’t be able to recover without the help of an inhaler. Don’t wait too long before seeing a doctor because asthma can be deadly depending on the severity and length of the attack.


Both COPD and asthma are lifelong conditions. Though neither can be cured, both can be successfully managed to some extent. 

If you’re experiencing any trouble breathing or any of the related, see your doctor as soon as possible. Treatment for your symptoms is critical to helping your overall quality of life and health.

Since there isn’t a cure for COPD, you should do everything you can to prevent developing it. You can do this by not smoking and taking the proper safety precautions if your workplace contains certain pollutants. Asthma is also incurable. But as long as you always have a working inhaler on you, you’ll be prepared if symptoms start to show.

Related Articles:

The Essential Guide to Living with COPD

Things to Avoid When You Have COPD

man coughing, doctor checking heartbeat

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Feb 19, 2020