COPD and Asthma: Are They Different?

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LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott
Legally reviewed by: LLB (Hons) & LPC Stacy Pimlott In: Industrial Disease

What is Asthma and COPD?

The terms asthma and COPD can sometimes be confused or used interchangeably. This can lead to misdiagnosis or incorrect treatment.  However, they are both different diseases, with different symptoms and treatments and can carry very different prognoses.

Asthma is a condition affecting the airways in the lungs. The airways narrow or swell which can make breathing difficult. It affects people of all ages. Children may develop asthma at a young age and the symptoms may go away or improve over time. Adults may also develop asthma even if they have had no previous history of respiratory problems. This is known as late-onset asthma or adult asthma.

Common causes of asthma include allergies (such as pollen or animal fur), infections or exposure to irritants (such as chemicals at work).

COPD, or, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, is an umbrella term given to a group of conditions whereby a patient has difficulty in breathing due to damage of the airways and air sacs. The main conditions covered under COPD are emphysema and bronchitis.

Emphysema is when the air sacs are damaged and no longer work properly, meaning that it is harder for lungs to move air in and out of the body.

Bronchitis is often the result of an infection or underlying health condition, when the airways are narrowed or swollen, often with phlegm being produced.

The most common cause of COPD is smoking with the NHS advising that it is believed to be the cause of 9 out of 10 cases. Exposure to certain irritants at work, such a silica dust, flour dust and welding fumes, can also cause COPD. The risk of developing COPD is even greater if you are exposed to irritants at work and you are a smoker.

It is recently accepted that there can be an overlap between these two illnesses and someone may have elements of both asthma and COPD. Recognising this can be important as it may impact the way treatment is approached.

How are they diagnosed?

A common test for diagnosing asthma and/or COPD is by performing a spirometry.  Spirometry measures how much air you can forcibly breathe out in one go. The test is often performed by a doctor or nurse and they may carry out the test a few times to check the reliability of the results. You may be asked to take some bronchodilator medication (medication used to treat breathing difficulties) and then repeat the test so that the medical practitioner can assess the impact the medicine has had on the patient’s breathing.

Someone with COPD or asthma will show an “obstructive” result to this test. This means that the volume of air they can hold in their lungs is not affected but the force with which they can breathe it out is reduced. The difference between someone with COPD and someone with asthma in a spirometry test is that someone with asthma will often respond well when taking bronchodilator medication and will notice an improvement in the readings. Those with COPD may also notice some improvement but it will normally be less so.

Chest X-rays and scans can be used to diagnose COPD and to look for any other problems with the lungs that may be causing similar symptoms to what is being described.

A blood sample can also be taken to rule out any other illnesses such as anaemia.


The main medical treatment for asthma is inhalers. Which inhalers are prescribed and how often they are required will depend upon the severity of asthma. People will also be advised to reduce exposure to any known triggers, be it environmental or occupational.

With the correct treatment many people are able to live a life fairly unrestricted by their asthma

The main treatment for COPD is inhalers and tablets. These can be short-acting or long-acting inhalers depending upon one’s symptoms. Other treatments may be recommended such as personalised exercise programmes.

Anyone with COPD is urged to stop smoking and reduce their exposure to second hand smoke as much as possible.

Although inhalers can be used to help ease the symptoms of COPD there is no cure. It is a lifelong disease and can impact one’s life expectancy. However, using the correct medication and engaging in positive lifestyle management can help maintain a good quality of life.

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