The COPD and Asthma Connection

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closeup of inhaler on table

If you’re suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you probably developed symptoms of this chronic disease as an adult, especially if you smoked or worked in an occupation that exposed you to pollutants or chemicals. But, if you suffered from asthma, (also a pulmonary disorder) while growing up, you’re even more likely to have COPD as an adult.

The Correlation

Studies have demonstrated a direct correlation between severity of asthma as a child and the incidence of COPD. Children who suffer from severe, persistent asthma are nearly 32 times more likely to develop COPD as an adult, whereas children who had mild asthma weren’t at an increased risk. If you had severe asthma for many years and experienced difficulty controlling it, you might develop airway remodeling that causes this chronic irreversible airflow obstruction, or COPD.

Similarities Between COPD and Asthma

  • Asthma and COPD patients experience some of the same symptoms, like shortness of breath, wheezing and coughing.

  • Both are diseases of chronic inflammation of the airways that causes airflow obstruction.

  • Exposure to tobacco smoke, indoor air pollution, environmental pollution, and occupational pollution, as well as viral infections, can all cause exacerbated COPD or asthma symptoms.

  • Both diseases are diagnosed through the use of spirometry.

Differences Between COPD and Asthma

  • Asthma is an airflow limitation that’s reversible, while COPD is an airflow limitation that is irreversible.

  • While both asthma and COPD impact the airways, COPD is also caused by the breakdown of spongy lung tissue that surrounds the airways.

  • Although inflammation is central to both COPD and asthma, the two conditions have different immune responses to it. Different immune cells react in different ways, creating distinctive structural changes.

  • Those inflammation differences mean the diseases have different responses to anti-inflammatory medications.

  • When treating asthma, doctors focus on suppressing chronic inflammation. But since COPD involves irreversible obstruction of the airways, your doctor’s treatment will focus on reducing your symptoms.

Getting Treatment

In COPD patients with a more mild form of the disease, tissue inflammation often responds favorably to steroid therapy. Smoking cessation is the best way to reduce COPD symptoms and preserve lung function. Many asthma patients who develop COPD will need to continue treating the asthma-related inflammation, as well as adding treatments to manage COPD symptoms, to retain as much lung function as possible. Some treatment options include  bronchodilators that relax the muscles around the airways and inhaled  corticosteroids for people with moderate to severe COPD. Antibiotics may be prescribed during symptom flare-ups because respiratory infections can make COPD worse.

Remember to get your flu and pneumonia shots every year and avoid things that can irritate your lungs, like smoke, pollution, and air that is cold and dry.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2019 Oct 4

  1. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease. American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology. http://www.aaaai.org/conditions-and-treatments/related-conditions/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-dise...

  2. The Link Between Asthma and COPD. American Lung Association. http://www.lung.org/associations/states/illinois/news/the-link-between-asthma.html

  3. So Ri Kim and Yang Keun Rhee. Overlap Between Asthma and COPD: Where the Two Diseases Converge. Allergy Asthma Immunol Res. 2010 Oct;2(4):209–14. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2946698/

  4. Rodrigo Athanazio. Airway disease: similarities and differences between asthma, COPD and bronchiectasis. Clinics (Sao Paulo). 2012 Nov;67(11):1335–43. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3488995/

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