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Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are breathing illnesses that share some of the same symptoms, such as wheezing and difficulty breathing. But they are medically very different. Telling the two apart requires a visit to a primary care or lung doctor for one simple test.

Understanding the Difference

Asthma typically is an attack that causes your airways become inflamed and irritated due to an allergen — particles like dust or pollen that cause an allergic reaction. The attack causes wheezing and tightness in the chest.

COPD makes it more difficult to move air in and out of your airways, which leads to what can appear to be asthma symptoms. But COPD can worsen over time and is mainly due to damage to the lungs most commonly caused by smoking cigarettes.

This damage leads to airway obstruction and inflammation. You might cough often (sometime with phlegm or mucus), wheeze, feel short of breath or get tired during simple activities. COPD treatment also requires you to take medication on a regular basis.

There are a number of other differences between COPD and asthma:

  • Age: A major difference between COPD and asthma is an individual's age when diagnosed. Asthma is typically diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, while COPD is diagnosed later in life.
  • Symptoms: Asthma typically produces symptoms only when triggered by an allergen; COPD symptoms are constant and can get worse over time.
  • Other related conditions: With asthma, you might also have other allergic conditions such as hay fever or eczema, while COPD patients may have smoking-related diseases such as coronary heart disease or osteoporosis.

Screening is the Key

Two screening tools are used to test whether you have asthma or COPD:

  • Questionnaire: this will collect information about your habits and family history to help identify patients who are at high risk
  • Spirometry: this test measures how much and how fast you can move air into and out of your lungs.

If you are experiencing shortness of breath and wheezing, it is important that you make an appointment with your primary care physician to determine the cause. Early detection in both asthma and COPD could be lifesaving.