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Living with COPD and Asthma

If you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, you know that they cause similar symptoms–coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. But the diseases are different in some key ways.

Lung function

In COPD, the airways in the lungs lose their elasticity, the walls of the airways become swollen, and the walls between air sacs can be destroyed. Once this damage is done, it cannot be reversed. Asthma does not necessarily cause lung deterioration if it is treated and controlled. During an asthma attack, the airways in the lungs become swollen and narrow, but once the attack is over, they usually return to normal.

Treatment options

Although there is no cure for COPD or asthma, symptoms can often be controlled by medications. Some of the same medicines are used for these conditions but in different ways.

For COPD, the first treatment option is usually a bronchodilator, a medicine that you inhale to help open your airways and make it easier to breathe. Depending on the severity of your symptoms, you may use this medicine only when needed, or you may need to use it every day. If you have moderate to severe COPD, your doctor may prescribe an inhaled steroid as well. Inhaled steroids help lessen the inflammation in your airways. For quick relief, bronchodilators are used first.

For asthma that is other than mild to intermittent in nature, the treatment for long-term control is the reverse. The first treatment option for asthma that is persistent or moderate in severity is an inhaled steroid, usually taken every day to help prevent an attack. Inhaled steroids are known as controller medications. Bronchodilators are reserved for treatment of acute symptoms only–to stop an attack. Short-acting bronchodilators are known as rescue medicines.

Taking care of yourself

The most important way to reduce the damage to your lungs from COPD and to slow down the advancement of the disease is to quit smoking and avoid secondhand smoke. To keep asthma under control, know what triggers make your asthma worse, try to avoid them, and be sure you know how to take your medicine correctly. In addition, a balanced, healthy diet and regular exercise will help you manage both COPD and asthma.