Asthma and COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are hard to set apart, because of the similarities they share. Both are diseases related to the respiratory system with common symptoms and even treatments.

On World Asthma Day, however, we at FindMeCure would like to dispel some common misconceptions in order to raise awareness of asthma and respiratory conditions in general. It’s important to do so, since current research on asthma focuses on the role the immune system plays in the disease and how genes and gene-related therapies could possibly control the immune response[1].

COPD, on the other hand, has very little to do with the immune system. Researchers instead are looking into ways to reduce mucus production and how smoking affects the lungs in emphysema[2]. In order for these different approaches to make sense, let’s take a look at what sets the two conditions apart.


COPD is actually an umbrella term. It’s used for both people who suffer from emphysema, chronic bronchitis or both. And while the symptoms of asthma and COPD are very similar – shortness of breath, coughing, chest tightness, a whistling sound in the chest called wheezing – the causes between them are not.

Asthma needs triggers to unleash its full scope of awful symptoms. Such triggers might be cigarette smoke, dust, polluted air, tree pollen, pets or any number of other things, after which breathing can return to normal. People who live with COPD, on the other hand, experience their symptoms at all times, though they become much worse when exposed to triggers.

COPD is also associated with more mucus production than asthma and it gets progressively worse with time. Also, unlike asthma, which you either have or you don’t, you can do a great deal to prevent COPD. Why?

Because the causes are different

Most people diagnosed with asthma have been living with this condition since childhood. Most people who suffer from COPD, however, developed their condition gradually and were first diagnosed after the age of 40. This is because, unlike asthma, COPD is the result of damage done to the respiratory ways through years of smoking or being exposed to certain chemicals in the environment and/or air pollution.

What causes asthma, on the other hand, is unclear. Like many other diseases out there, researchers are speculating about what combination of genetic and environmental factors could be behind it. One possible answer is atopy – a tendency to develop allergies which run in the family.

Also very interesting is the so called “hygiene hypothesis”, which goes as follows: modern life with its abundance of sanitary tools and appliances has lowered the percentage of infant infections. This in turn affects the way children develop immunity and makes them more susceptible to allergies. Whether this hypothesis is true or not, the fact remains – one has very limited control over asthma prevention, whereas the development of COPD is hugely influenced by one’s environment with smoking being the main cause.

What about treatment

COPD and asthma are treated with more or less the same medicine – the goal being relaxing the muscles around the airways and reducing inflammation. Different courses of action are taken, however, due to the otherwise different conditions being treated.

Asthma patients are advised to stay away from potential triggers – to avoid smokers, keep pets outside if possible and mostly stay inside during pollen season. Asthma is the more stable condition of the two, meaning it typically doesn’t get worse over time, making it predictable somewhat more manageable. And though, there is no end-all cure for either asthma or COPD, some people might outgrow childhood asthma.

COPD is nothing like that. COPD is a progressive condition, which means that symptoms get worse with time. Patients are strongly advised to quit smoking to prevent further damaging their respiratory system. In addition to the medicine they’re prescribed, which often is the same drugs prescribed for asthma (mainly corticosteroids), COPD patients learn different coping strategies for everyday situations made difficult by their condition.

For some people with COPD (these with severe emphysema) lung volume reduction surgeries might be an option, while people who suffer asthma can resort to thermoplasty – a procedure which burns some of the muscle in the airways in order to reduce the ability to contract.

Patient-centered clinical trials in asthma have already made a difference in healthcare. Though, there is no cure at this point, treatments get better with every new drug being tested. If you want to part of the team of people who speed up the process of new, better drugs reaching patients, consider joining a clinical trial. When it comes to medical advancements, every small step counts.

Article by Nelly Katsarova




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