For people with chronic respiratory conditions, getting an accurate diagnosis is the first step to getting appropriate treatment. Two common diseases that cause breathing difficulties are asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Researchers in Australia recently announced that they have found a way to help doctors accurately diagnose whether a patient has COPD or asthma.
Asthma is a disease that can affect people of any age but usually starts in childhood. People with asthma may have relatively little difficulty breathing until something triggers an attack. During an asthma attack, tissue in the airways swells and secretes excess mucus. At the same time, the muscles around the airways tighten, which squeezes the airways. All of these things make it harder for air to pass in and out of the lungs, which can cause coughing and wheezing.
Defining Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
COPD is a progressive condition of the lungs that gets worse over time. Inside the lungs there are tiny air sacs formed by walls of a very thin membrane. When we breathe in, the sacs expand and fill with air. Blood vessels pick up oxygen from these sacs and carry it out to the body. When we breathe out, the sacs shrink down to help push the air out, along with carbon dioxide that was carried to the lungs by the blood. For people with COPD, the lungs are not able to function normally and less air moves in and out when they breathe. This can be caused by damage to the air sacs in the lungs, because the walls of the airways are inflamed and thicker than normal, or because the airways are producing too much mucus which blocks air flow.
COPD vs. Asthma
At first glance, it would seem that doctors should easily be able to tell the difference between asthma and COPD. Asthma usually starts in childhood while COPD often starts in adults who are smokers. Asthma is often triggered by recognizable events such as allergens, cold air, or exercise. COPD often becomes worse as a result of a respiratory tract infection.