Is It Asthma, COPD, or Both?

Have you noticed that your fast-acting relief inhaler isn't providing as much relief as you'd expect? If you're an older person who smoked, it's possible that in addition to asthma, you could have another ailment called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

What is COPD?

COPD refers to a variety of respiratory conditions that cause symptoms that are quite similar to asthma, except that while asthma can be reversed with proper treatment, COPD causes more permanent damage.

Long-term smoking most often leads to COPD, and smokers are also more likely to have both asthma and COPD.

Is It Asthma or COPD?

Because asthma and COPD look similar, causing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and difficulty breathing, it's often challenging to differentiate between the two illnesses, especially when they co-occur. Yet there are some subtle differences. For instance, asthma episodes often occur at night and after exposure to allergens, while people with COPD commonly experience coughing and mucus in the mornings, along with chest symptoms that can linger throughout the day. But using symptoms alone may not be enough to accurately identify the conditions and determine how best to treat them.

Diagnosing Asthma and COPD

One way doctors assess a patient's respiratory condition is through a pulmonary function test (PFT) to reveal obstruction in the airways. In asthmatics, a bronchodilator usually improves lung function, while in people who have COPD alone, the medicine usually won't make a significant difference. People who have both asthma and COPD together usually get some benefits from the inhaler, however the effects aren't as efficient as when it's used for asthma alone.

Using Biomarkers to Identify Asthma or COPD

To help make it easier for doctors to diagnosis asthma and COPD, researchers from Australia recently tried to identify some of the common characteristics in the cells that occur with asthma and with COPD. They examined the blood of people with asthma, those with COPD, and those with no respiratory disease in order to understand the proteins that exist in these different scenarios. They were able to identify four biomarkers in the blood that help regulate inflammation in the cells and can be indicative of asthma or COPD. In the future, these markers may help doctors to properly identify asthma and COPD, or a combination of the two conditions, at an earlier stage. These findings appeared in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine in summer 2011.

Treating Asthma and COPD

If you're grappling with respiratory symptoms and you believe that asthma, COPD, or both conditions may be to blame for your ailments, it's important to see a specialist who can confirm the diagnosis. While testing to identify the biomarkers may not be available yet for the general public, your doctor can still use more conventional methods to assess the health of your respiratory system, determine what's causing your symptoms, and ways to best to treat them.

Smoke Triggers Asthma and COPD

Regardless of what ails you, if you smoke, you'll need to kick the bad habit. Smoking can worsen both asthma and COPD and can also lead to many other serious health problems. You should also avoid second-hand smoke, too, since someone else's smoke can be enough to trigger your symptoms.

Treating Asthma and COPD

Asthma and COPD are usually both treated with bronchodilators and inhaled corticosteroids. In addition, many people with asthma and COPD will need a flu shot and pneumonia shot each year to help avoid illnesses that can make the conditions worse. If you do get sick, people with COPD often need an antibiotic to prevent an infection from taking root. Finally, for both conditions it's best to avoid dry air and pollutants, since these can irritate sensitive airways and can make you feel worse.

While you can't make asthma and COPD go away completely, with proper diagnosis, you can effectively manage the symptoms and breathe more easily.




Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) American Academy of Asthma, Allergy, and Immunology. AAAAI, n.d. Web. 21 Aug. 2011.

"COPD." American Lung Association., n.d. Web, 25 Aug. 2011.

Verrills, Nicole M. "Identification of Novel Diagnostic Biomarkers for Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease." American Journal of Respiratory Critical Care Medicine, 183 (Jun 2011) 1633 - 1643.