Medical City Weatherford
November 28, 2018

If you've experienced coughing fits, shortness of breath or wheezing, you may have wondered if asthma or COPD could be to blame. Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are often confused because they share some of the same symptoms. During COPD Awareness Month, a pulmonary disease expert from Medical City Weatherford identifies key similarities between the two conditions and how to tell them apart.

According to Pavan Irukulla, MD.:

What are asthma and COPD?
Asthma is a reversible lung disease that often appears during childhood. It may be reversed over time, but many people have asthma for life. Asthma causes tightening and inflammation in airways and constriction in lungs. When the airways become narrower, it results in shortness of breath, coughing and wheezing.

These symptoms become especially severe during asthma attacks. Asthma attacks may be brought on by a number of triggers such as allergies, exercise, irritating fragrances and lung infections. Attacks can be life-threatening, but they're usually treatable at home with rescue inhalers like albuterol.

COPD is a group of chronic lung diseases, including bronchitis and emphysema, which are often caused by smoking or exposure to second hand smoke. Most of these chronic lung diseases don't appear until after age 40.

  • Chronic bronchitis is an ongoing cough, which produces large amounts of mucus.
  • Emphysema involves the damage and scarring of tiny air sacs in your lungs, called alveoli. When alveoli are destroyed, it's harder for your lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

There are treatments for COPD, but there's no known cure. Many of the same triggers that cause asthma attacks could also lead to COPD exacerbations, or symptom flare-ups.

Are COPD and asthma diagnosed the same way?
Some of the same tests are used to diagnose both asthma and COPD.

A pulmonary function test (PFT) involves taking a deep breath, and then exhaling as long and hard as you can into a special tube. The tube is attached to a computer, which measures your lung strength and capacity, or the amount of air you're able to exhale. If you don't score well on your PFT, your lung specialist will give you an inhaled medication to help open up your airways, and then let you redo the test. People with asthma typically score better after taking the medication, while those with COPD show little or no improvement.

Your doctor may also order blood tests, as well as a chest X-ray to determine whether another condition, such as pneumonia, could be causing your symptoms.

Are both conditions preventable?
COPD is largely preventable since smoking causes 80 percent of cases. You can't prevent asthma, but you can limit the number of attacks you experience by:

  • Avoiding triggers
  • Getting your annual flu shot
  • Taking your daily or maintenance inhalers

Smoking can't cause asthma, but it can trigger attacks, make it harder to fight lung infections and increase your risk of developing COPD. If you have asthma, cigarette smoke is more likely to damage your lungs, putting you at a higher risk for COPD.

How asthma and COPD are treated
Quitting smoking is the number one treatment for COPD and a key part of controlling asthma symptoms. For help quitting tobacco, call the national Smokefree Hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800- 784-8669).

Asthma and COPD also share some—but not all—medications. Some inhaler therapies are used to treat both conditions, including bronchodilators, which help open airways, and steroid inhalers.

Individuals with both asthma and COPD often need a combination of inhalers, which may vary by season or depending on how advanced your condition is.

To find a local lung specialist, visit or call (682) 218-5230.