Although asthma and COPD share similar characteristics, they are two very different animals in terms of disease onset, frequency of symptoms, and reversibility of airway obstruction.
To help you better understand your own symptoms so that you can then discuss them with your physician, ask yourself the following questions:
How Old Was I When I Was Diagnosed?
While most people think that asthma only occurs during childhood or adolescence, the reality is it can occur at any age. The onset of COPD, however, rarely occurs before the age of 45.
Have I Ever Smoked?
While only about 20% of smokers and a very small percentage of non-smokers get COPD, approximately 80% of those who are diagnosed are either current or former smokers. In contrast, there are many non-smokers who have asthma.
Do Certain Triggers Make My Condition Worse?
The typical asthma patient will tell you that certain triggers like stress, weather, specific allergens, environmental pollutants or even perfume may trigger an asthma attack. For these patients, removing the trigger will oftentimes relieve the symptoms. It's quite the opposite for COPD -- for example, quitting smoking may slow the rate of lung decline that occurs with the disease, but does little for improving COPD symptoms.
Do My Symptoms Disappear Between Exacerbations?
Ask any COPD patient and he or she will tell you that they rarely go a day without COPD symptoms, even when they are not having a COPD exacerbation. On the contrary, an asthma patient will tell you that they are virtually symptom-free between asthma attacks.
Does My Lung Function Return to Normal Between Exacerbations?
With proper treatment, airflow obstruction is generally completely reversible in between acute asthma attacks. In direct contrast, airflow limitation in COPD is only partially reversible, at best, in between COPD exacerbations (by quitting smoking and using a bronchodilator).
Can I Have An Asthma Component Along With My COPD?
To make matters even more confusing, the answer to this question is definitely yes. Many COPD patients have an asthma component to their disease, and making that determination all boils down to how much your airway obstruction reverses after using a bronchodilator. Read more about this phenomenon here:
Remember, this list of questions is not meant to replace a diagnosis or sound medical advice from a health care professional. If you are experiencing respiratory symptoms, talk to your doctor as soon as possible for more information.
David G. Tinkelman, David B. Price, Robert J. Nordyke, R. J. Halbert. Misdiagnosis of COPD and Asthma in Primary Care Patients 40 Years of Age and Over. March, 2006.
American Thoracic Society. Standards for the diagnosis and care of patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 1995;152:S77-S120.
National Asthma Education and Prevention Program. Clinical Practice Guidelines. Expert Panel Report 2. Guidelines for the Diagnosis and Management of Asthma. Bethesda, Md: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, National Institutes of Health, US Dept of Health and Human Services; 1997. NIH publication 97-4051.