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Asthma or COPD--Understanding the Differences

Coughing that just won’t go away. Shortness of breath. Wheezing. Sounds like an asthma attack, right? Before reaching for the inhaler or those over-the-counter cough drops, however, there could be another culprit–Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) or emphysema. With as many as 12,000 million Americans currently living with COPD (and just as many who likely have the disease but are undiagnosed), it’s important to determine the real cause behind coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath.

Let's take a look at some of the major differences between these two conditions:


  • Environmental factors such as cigarette smoke, dust, and pet hair can trigger asthmatic symptoms like wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.

  • Usually displays in patients in childhood, often by age 5, but can also come on as an adult.

  • Thought to be caused by genetics.


  • Environmental triggers can exacerbate symptoms like coughing and difficulty breathing, but these symptoms are often present in a milder form regardless of air quality.

  • Typically diagnosed after age 40.

  • Caused mainly by cigarette smoking (in up to 90% of all patients), or by secondhand exposure to air pollutants.

While medication options for both conditions are often similar – bronchodilators or inhaled steroids – treatment plans differ between the two. Asthma patients need to avoid known triggers, such as staying indoors when pollen counts are high and avoiding secondhand smoke. Those with COPD face a more intense therapeutic approach depending on the extent of the disease and how long they've smoked. Oxygen (O2) is often prescribed to help the patient get more oxygen into the lungs, pulmonary rehabilitation might be scheduled to maximize breathing capacity if indicated, and most importantly, patients are urged to stop smoking as soon as COPD is diagnosed.

Of course, it’s crucial to see a doctor if a senior loved one appears to be struggling with any lung condition, like shortness of breath or a chronic cough. Although there’s currently no cure for either asthma or COPD, both conditions are better controlled when properly diagnosed and treated. Unfortunately, COPD causes permanent, irreversible damage to the lungs, but with treatment, the progression of the disease can be slowed down, its symptoms better managed and a loved one's quality of life more improved.

If you or your loved one needs help managing the household chores or cleaning due to shortness of breath or frequent asthma attacks, AAging Better is available to provide assistance at home to help make these chronic conditions easier to manage. For assistance, feel free to give us a call to discuss how we can best help. We have well-trained caregivers available to assist with whatever might be needed to ensure you or your loved one stays safely and effectively in the comfort of a person's own home.

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