November 10, 2022

Asthma vs. COPD: What Are the Differences?

Person suffering from respiratory disease

Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are conditions that affect the lungs. Both involve airway swelling that makes it difficult to breathe. However, they have different causes and treatments, so it’s important for people with lung issues to understand the difference between asthma and COPD.

One important distinction in the conversation of asthma vs. COPD is what causes airway swelling. In asthma, substances like pollen or mold and physical activity can create inflammation. COPD is an umbrella term for a group of lung conditions that include chronic bronchitis and emphysema, most of which have smoking as their primary cause. 

As you learn more about COPD vs. asthma, the differences become more apparent. 

Are Asthma and COPD the Same?

Asthma and COPD can both cause severe respiratory symptoms, but they’re not the same disease. What’s the difference between asthma and COPD? 

In addition to the difference in causes (activity or environmental irritants for asthma vs. smoking for COPD), the two diseases differ in how they progress. Asthma comes on in “attacks” that occur and then subside. The attacks may vary in severity, but they don’t tend to get progressively worse. 

COPD, on the other hand, is a progressive disease — meaning it gets worse over time. COPD causes changes to the airways, including causing tiny air sacs in the lungs to become less stretchy. These changes continue to worsen, making it increasingly difficult to breathe. The fact that COPD progresses is a major difference between COPD and asthma. 

Asthma vs. COPD Comparison Chart

The table below provides an overview of asthma vs. COPD.

DescriptionAsthma is a condition that causes lung inflammation that makes it hard to breathe. Symptoms come and go.Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive lung disease that inhibits airflow and breathing.
SymptomsEpisodes of shortness of breath; dry cough; chest tightness; spasms in lung bronchiolesProgressively worsening morning cough with phlegm; spasms in lung bronchioles; decreasing airflow
Risk FactorsAllergies; rhinitis; eczemaSmoking; asthma
TriggersAllergens; exercise; cold airInfluenza, pneumonia, and other respiratory tract infections; air pollution
PresentationTypically occurs in younger patientsTypically occurs in older patients who smoke or previously smoked
DiagnosisPhysical exam; medical historyCT scans; spirometry
TreatmentBronchodilators; inhaled corticosteroids; oral steroidsBronchodilators; pulmonary treatments; oxygen; hospitalization
Lifestyle ChangesStop smoking; avoid air pollution; avoid allergensStop smoking; avoid air pollution

Can You Have Asthma and COPD Together?

Some people have asthma with COPD, which is a condition doctors call asthma-COPD overlap (ACO). Researchers don’t yet know why this occurs. It may develop because long-term COPD changes how the lungs work, making a person more susceptible to asthma. ACO is more serious than either asthma or COPD alone, so getting diagnosed and treated is essential.   

Can Asthma Turn Into COPD?

It’s possible to have asthma and COPD together. However, most people with asthma don’t develop COPD. More often, people with COPD develop asthma.

Either way, your doctor will monitor your condition for changes in your symptoms that might require modification of your treatments. 

Learn More About Asthma and COPD from Baptist Health

Asthma and COPD are similar but distinct lung diseases. They’re serious health conditions that require proper diagnosis and treatment. 

If you have asthma or COPD symptoms, you should contact your Baptist Health physician. If you don’t yet have one, you can find a doctor using our online provider directory

Learn More.