Coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath — people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are just as familiar with these symptoms as people with asthma are, but the two conditions are actually very different from each other.
It’s easy to mistake one condition for the other at first. After all, they have one big thing in common: The inability to get enough air into the lungs. They’re also treated with some of the same medicines.
In some respects, the changes in the body that cause shortness of breath are similar between COPD and asthma. But a number of other COPD-asthma differences set the two conditions apart.
COPD is an umbrella term used to diagnose people who have chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or a combination of both. People with the chronic bronchitis form of COPD find it hard to breathe because their airways become swollen and filled with mucus. The same changes occur in people with asthma, but they happen because of triggers, or factors in the environment that cause a reaction. The triggers could be cigarette smoke, pet dander, dust, or a variety of other things. People with COPD tend to have milder versions of symptoms like shortness of breath even without triggers present, but when they are exposed to triggers, their symptoms can become even worse.
People who have COPD because of emphysema, meanwhile, have damaged air sacs in their lungs, which can lead to hyperinflation, or the inability of the lungs to return to their normal shape after expelling air. “The lungs become swollen or expanded,” says Anil Singh, MD, a pulmonary critical care specialist with Allegheny Health Network in Pittsburgh. “That makes it hard to feel like you’ve caught your breath.” Most people with COPD have a combination of both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.