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What Is the Difference Between COPD and Asthma?


Updated May 20, 2014

Written or reviewed by a board-certified physician. See About.com's Medical Review Board.

What Is the Difference Between COPD and Asthma?
Question: What Is the Difference Between COPD and Asthma?

The difference between COPD and asthma really lies in the pathophysiology, or the physical processes that lead to asthma symptoms. Both asthma and COPD result from inflammation and hyperactivity, but COPD inflammation results from macrophages and neutrophils (two types of white blood cells that are part of the immune response) and develops over many years. Inflammation from asthma, on the other hand, most commonly occurs over a shorter period and results from eosinophils (another type of white blood cell).

Asthma and COPD may have similar symptoms, such as:

Asthma is a disease in which your airways become inflamed and irritable in response to an allergen. When this happens it becomes more difficult to move air in and out of your airways, which leads to asthma symptoms.

In COPD, your lungs become damaged following exposure to certain irritants, most commonly due to chronic cigarette smoking. This chronic exposure and damage leads to airway obstruction and hyperinflation. While airflow in asthma is mostly reversible, airflow in COPD is only partially reversible.

More Differences between Asthma And COPD

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

  1. Age-An easy difference between COPD and asthma is the age when a diagnosis is made. Asthma is most often diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, while COPD is diagnosed later in life.

  2. Smoking history- Nearly all patients with COPD either have smoked or have a significant environmental tobacco smoke exposure, while asthma patients are more commonly non-smokers.

  3. Symptoms- Another difference between asthma and COPD is the intermittent symptoms seen with asthma versus the chronic, progressive symptoms seen in COPD.

  4. Forced Expiratory Volume (FEV1) Changes- Reversibility of FEV1 represents another difference between asthma and COPD. In asthma, decreases in FEV1 return to normal between asthma attacks, while changes in FEV1 in COPD are generally not reversible.

  5. Common coexisting conditions- In asthma you will commonly have coexisting allergic conditions such as allergic rhinitis or eczema, while COPD patients will have smoking related diseases like coronary heart disease or osteoporosis.

  6. Inhaled steroids- While inhaled steroids are considered standard care in all stages of asthma beyond intermittent asthma, inhaled steroids only benefit a small number of patients with COPD.

More On The Difference Between Asthma And COPD


Kuebler KK, Buchsel PC, Balkstra CR. Differentiating chronic obstructive pulmonary disease from asthma. J Am Acad Nurse Pract. 2008 Sep;20(9):445-54.

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