Understanding the Relation Between Asthma and COPD
Understanding the Relation Between Asthma and COPD

Asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) are respiratory ailments that are often confused for each other due to overlapping symptoms and little understanding of the two conditions. The National Institute of Health (NIH) says that about 40% of people with COPD also have asthma. The NIH also estimates that 24 million Americans suffer from COPD though about half of them are not aware of it. If you suspect that you are suffering from any of these two conditions, it is important to understand the similarities and differences between COPD and asthma for better management of these conditions.

What is asthma?
Asthma is an allergic reaction that often develops in early childhood. Health experts have never pinpointed why people develop asthma, but only that asthma attacks are triggered by allergens. These include dust, dust mites, mold, pollen, strong perfumes, certain foods, and food additives. The allergic attack causes inflammation that constricts the airways. Asthma attacks differ in severity depending on exposure to the triggering allergen. An asthma attack is relieved using a bronchial dilator to expand the airways and allow free movement of air.

What is COPD?
COPD is a disease that develops later in life due to the effects of exposure to particulate irritants especially tobacco smoke. This is usually observed in smokers above the age of 40 years. COPD is a progressive disease whose effects are treatable but irreversible. It is characterized by progressive airflow limitation and degrading of lung functions. This leads to respiratory complications including shortness of breath, coughing, and frequent throat clearing.

COPD is a leading killer in smokers, being attributable to the death of about 150,000 Americans each year. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are respiratory complications commonly observed in people with COPD. Chronic bronchitis happens when the bronchial tubes are inflamed leading to excessive coughing and mucus production. Emphysema happens when air sacs (alveoli) are destroyed.

What causes COPD?
There is a difference in the development of COPD and asthma. The latter comes about from deterioration caused by exposure to irritant particulate matter and gases. In developed countries like ours, tobacco smoking is the main cause of this disease. Here are some of the leading risk factors observed to lead up to COPD:

Tobacco smoking – All forms of tobacco inhalation including cigarettes, pipes, and cigars put the users at risk. People who live in close proximity to smokers and inhale huge amounts of second-hand smoke are at risk as well. People living with asthma are at a higher than normal risk of developing COPD if they smoke.

Exposure to chemical irritants – Long exposure to chemicals and gases that irritate the airways causes continued inflammation of the airways and gradual deterioration of lung tissue.

Age – COPD is more likely to occur in smokers after the age of 40 years.

Genetics – About 1% of COPD sufferers have been observed to live with a genetic disorder that leads to Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. This protein is naturally made in the liver and helps to boost immunity in the lungs. People with this deficiency are at a higher risk of developing various respiratory ailments.

Similarities in COPD and asthma
People suffering from both COPD and asthma usually have similar symptoms namely shortness of breath and heightened sensitivity of the respiratory system. COPD and asthma have also been observed to have some similar comorbidities. These are ailments that occur alongside the main disease. These two respiratory conditions share the following comorbidities:

  • Sinusitis
  • Migraines
  • High blood pressure
  • Stomach ulcers
  • Lung cancer
  • Impaired mobility

How are COPD and asthma treated?
Both COPD and asthma are treatable conditions. The only difference is that asthma attacks are temporary and can be relieved in a number of ways, while the lung tissue damage caused by COPD can be stopped but not reversed.

Some of the common methods of treating asthma include:

  • Quick-relief inhalers and pills – These often contain corticosteroids that reduce inflammation of the airways.
  • Long-term prescriptions – This is often given to people suffering from severe asthma. It includes using a combination of medication with quick-acting steroids and immunity boosters.
  • Bronchial thermoplasty – The insides of the airways are heated to reduce inflammation.

COPD treatment aims at halting the effects of lung damage by a number of ways:

  • Surgery – This is done in severe cases of COPD. Lung volume reduction removes some lung tissue to give more room for the expansion of remaining tissue. Lung transplant replaces damaged lungs with healthy ones.
  • Lung therapy – This aims at improving lung function by making lifestyle adjustments including quitting smoking and exercise.

Both COPD and asthma can be treated and their symptoms relieved. These are serious and life-threatening conditions that need to be identified and treated as quickly as possible. Being better informed on the relationship between the two is also helpful in determining the best treatment options.

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