Information Zone

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What is Asthma?

Asthma affects over 5 million people in the UK, including one in eight school children and one in 13 adults. With the correct treatment, support and advice most people with asthma can lead full and active lives.

Asthma is a variable condition that affects the airways - the small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs. People with asthma have airways that are sensitive and become inflamed. Their airways can react badly when they have a cold or other viral infection or when they come into contact with an asthma trigger.

When this happens the muscles around the walls of the airways tighten and they become narrower. The lining of the airways swell and often produce sticky mucus. As the airways narrow, the air has to squeeze in and out and this is what causes difficulty in breathing. Asthma symptoms can include coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath or a tight feeling in the chest.

What are the causes of Asthma?

Asthma, like its related allergic conditions eczema and hay fever, often runs in the family and can be inherited. Poor air quality can make your asthma worse.


What is COPD? Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

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COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) is a general term which includes the conditions chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

  • Chronic = persistent and long term
  • Bronchitis - inflammation of the bronchi (the airways of the lungs)
  • Emphysema - damage to the smaller airways and air sacs (alveoli) of the lungs
  • Pulmonary = 'affecting the lungs'

Chronic bronchitis or emphysema can cause obstruction (narrowing) of the airways. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema commonly occur together. The term COPD is used to describe airways which are narrowed due to chronic bronchitis, emphysema, or both.

What causes COPD?

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD and it usually affects people over the age of 40. The lining of the airways become damaged and inflamed with smoking. Environmental pollution and exposure to polluted conditions through occupation may play a part or make the disease worse.

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Symptoms of COPD

Symptoms usually begin in people aged over 40 who have smoked for 20 years or more

  • A 'smokers cough' tends to develop at first. Once symptoms start, if you continue to smoke, there is usually a gradual decline over several years to increasing breathlessness
  • Chest infections tend to become more frequent as time goes by. A flare-up of symptoms wheezing with cough and breathlessness (exacerbation) may become worse
  • Sputum. The damaged airways make considerably more mucus than normal. This forms sputum (phlegm) .Patients with chronic bronchitis tends to cough a lot of sputum

As the disease becomes more severe insufficient oxygen may get into the lungs through the narrowed airways and therefore a reduced amount of oxygen then passes into the bloodstream. This can cause heart failure as the heart requires a good oxygen supply.


What's the difference between COPD and Asthma?

Asthma and COPD cause similar symptoms. However, they are different diseases.

  • In COPD there is permanent damage to the airways. The narrowed airways are 'fixed', and so symptoms are chronic (persistent) and tend not to vary much from one week to the next and do not vary between different seasons. Treatments that are taken to 'open up the airways' have a more limited effect
  • In asthma there is inflammation in the airways which causes muscles in the airways to constrict. This causes the airways to narrow. The symptoms tend to be much more variable than with COPD and may vary from one week to the next and may be worse at different times of year
  • Asthma can be triggered by various stimulants e.g. - exposure to allergens such as pollen dust animal dander or may be triggered by exercise or weather conditions. Treatment to reduce inflammation and to 'open up the airways' usually works well

A person with asthma who is also a persistent smoker may go on to develop COPD. Both asthma and COPD are common and some people have both conditions.