Is It Asthma or COPD?

DrVisitAsthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) share similar symptoms – coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, to name a few – but treatment for each condition will vary according to the underlying causes.

Asthma is a respiratory disease marked by lung inflammation and periodic flares that are often related to allergies. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease often caused by smoking or other irritation. It’s possible for people to have both asthma and COPD.

COPD is the third-leading cause of death in the United States and affects 7 percent of the population. Long assumed to be a disease of male smokers, it now affects more women than men and at least 25 percent of patients are nonsmokers.

In diagnosing each condition, the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology (ACAAI) says lung function measurements should be accompanied by a thorough physical exam and medical history.

Medications used to treat asthma and COPD are similar, but treatment should be tailored to each individual patient.

“The primary treatment for COPD is bronchodilators, including long-acting beta-agonists,” says Chicago allergist Michael Foggs, MD, immediate past president of ACAAI. “They help relax muscles around airways in the lungs, allowing air to flow more freely.”

However, long-acting beta-agonists should not be used for people with asthma unless accompanied by inhaled corticosteroids to reduce inflammation. At the same time, inhaled corticosteroids have been associated with an increased risk for pneumonia in patients with COPD, Dr. Foggs says.

These complicating factors illustrate the delicate balance of diagnosis and treatment that is necessary when dealing with overlapping symptoms of COPD and asthma.

If diagnosed with both conditions, then it’s best to speak with an allergist or pulmonologist on appropriate treatment options.

Allergy & Asthma Network recognizes the growing prevalence of COPD and is partnering with the COPD Foundation to develop a symptom questionnaire to help people determine if they have asthma, COPD, or a combination of both. The questionnaire, funded by Boehringer Ingelheim, is expected to be available to the public mid-year.