COPD vs Asthma

Kenneth Knowles, MD
Medically reviewed by Kenneth Knowles, MDFebruary 21st, 2020
coughing older woman

COPD and asthma: They’re often confused for one another, despite the fact that each of these respiratory diseases functions differently. Before we dive into what makes them easy to confuse with one another (and what sets them apart), let’s first get a clear picture of what exactly COPD and asthma are:

What Is COPD?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (

COPD) is the term used to describe a group of lung diseases—namely emphysema and chronic bronchitis—which chronically impair lung airflow, leading to shortness of breath and chronic coughing, among other things. Emphysema is marked by the thinning and eventual destruction of air sacs in the lungs, while bronchitis inflames the bronchial tubes, often creating a surplus of mucus that blocks airways in the process.

What Is Asthma?

Asthma, on the other hand, is a distinct respiratory disease marked by spasms of the bronchi due to inflamed airways. Inflammation causes the lungs’ airways to simultaneously swell and narrow in addition to producing extra mucus. Combined, this makes for difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and a tight feeling in the chest, among other symptoms. Asthma exacerbations often come on from certain triggers, such as allergens.

How They’re Different

Asthma and COPD can be tough to tell apart, given how similar their symptoms are. Both present symptoms such as shortness of breath and chronic coughs, but there are a few symptomatic differences, as well. Chronic bronchitis—a form of COPD—often presents with a daily morning cough that’s usually productive, whereas asthma often produces episodes of wheezing and a tight feeling in the chest at night. Asthma patients are also far more likely to have allergies, such as hay fever.

Asthma and COPD also have very different root causes. Asthma is an inflammatory reaction and can be diagnosed at any age. COPD, on the other hand, is usually caused by damage to the respiratory system from smoking cigarettes—in fact, between 85 and 90 percent of all COPD cases attribute smoking as their root cause. And since COPD is usually the result of progressive damage from cigarettes, it’s usually diagnosed in people aged 40 and over.

How They’re Alike

The reason why COPD and asthma are so hard to tell apart? Because, without considering their root causes and functional differences, they actually seem pretty similar. Their biggest similarity is probably their symptoms; both can cause shortness of breath, chronic coughing, and a strong sensitivity to the things you inhale (airway hyper-responsiveness). Without diagnosis, it can be hard to tell whether an exacerbation is due to asthma or COPD.

Besides their symptoms, asthma and COPD have a few other things in common, too. They share many comorbidities, for one; both COPD and asthma patients often also experience:

  • Insomnia
  • Migraines
  • High blood pressure
  • Sinusitis
  • Stomach ulcers

Can Asthma and COPD Overlap?

As if one respiratory disease isn’t enough, can asthma and COPD actually overlap in a single patient? The short answer: Yes. When a patient has both asthma and COPD, it’s called asthma-COPD overlap syndrome (ACOS). You might actually be surprised by the prevalence of this dual-diagnosis; 40 percent of people with COPD also have asthma.

There are two groups of people at highest risk of developing ACOS. The first is people with asthma who are current or former smokers. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD, so if you fit into this group, the best thing you can do for your respiratory system is to put out that last cigarette.

The second group of people at high risk of developing ACOS: heavy smokers with a family history of asthma. Unfortunately, genetics are a huge risk factor for asthma. In fact, if you have a parent with asthma, you’re three to six times more likely to develop the respiratory disease than someone who’s not genetically predisposed. You know what that means: If you have a family history of asthma, quit smoking as soon as possible to prevent the onset of ACOS.

How to Treat COPD and Asthma Exacerbations

While the goal of treatment for both of these long-term respiratory conditions is to manage symptoms in order to improve quality of life, each does have their own treatment. Asthma treatment includes:

  • Recognizing triggers and taking necessary precautions against them
  • Quick-relief medications, such as short-acting beta agonists and intravenous or oral corticosteroids
  • Long-term asthma medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids and long-acting beta agonists
  • Allergy medications
  • Bronchial thermoplasty

And COPD treatment includes:

  • Medications like bronchodilators and oral steroids
  • Oxygen therapy and other pulmonary rehabilitation programs
  • Surgery

How Can DispatchHealth Help?


Despite their treatment differences,

COPD exacerbations and asthma attacks often look the same, with symptoms such as shortness of breath, lots of coughing, and decreased airflow in the lungs. If your exacerbation is severe enough to require immediate medical attention, call 911. However, if you experience mild yet recurring exacerbations, then reach out to DispatchHealth. Whether you have asthma, COPD, or even ACOS, DispatchHealth can come to your home to treat your exacerbation. We come equipped with nearly all of the tools you’ll find in the emergency room, and accept most major forms of insurance, including Medicare and Medicaid. Even if you’re not insured, no worries; we offer an affordable flat rate for uninsured patients. To request medical attention, contact us via our app, our website, or over the phone to receive care for your asthma or COPD exacerbation at your doorstep within a few hours!


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.

Sources referenced in this article:

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