- What to Avoid
- Quit Smoking
- Is There a Cure?
What is COPD? What is emphysema?
The COPD acronym means chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD is a general term that now includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, certain types of bronchiectasis and by some doctors and researchers, asthma. Consequently, emphysema is a type of COPD. Not all doctors agree with this evolving terminology.
COPD vs. asthma symptoms and signs
- Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
- Cough (usually in the AM) with some sputum
- Increasing exercise intolerance
People often have other types of COPD, for example, asthma, chronic bronchitis, and bronchiectasis, before they develop emphysema. Each of these types have their own characteristic symptoms and severity of symptoms, but because COPD generally progresses and worsens over time, these symptoms worsen as well.
There is quite a bit of overlap of symptoms between all of the types of COPD. Doctors consider emphysema the "end-stage" of COPD, where respiratory symptoms and shortness of breath can be so severe you require constant oxygen, and it becomes debilitating.
COPD vs. asthma differences between symptoms
There are no differences between COPD and emphysema if you consider emphysema to be a type of end-stage of COPD. However, emphysema (or end-stage, type 3-4 COPD) has permanent destructive tissue changes seen on biopsy samples that are different from the earlier stages or types of COPD.
COPD vs. emphysema causes
If you consider COPD and emphysema as the same disease, there are no differences in the causes, for example, smoking, secondhand smoke, immune-mediated tissue changes, inhaling toxic substances, and/or alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. However, by far, the number one cause of COPD (and emphysema) is cigarette smoking.
What things worsen symptoms?
Things that make symptoms worse for all types of COPD, and especially emphysema are the same. COPD and emphysema are slowly progressive diseases that worsen over time (sometimes even with treatment).
- If you inhale irritants, for example, noxious chemicals or particle debris (lung tissue toxins), and/or allergens your breathing will worsen.
- If you continue smoking, it will cause a more rapid deterioration in your lung function and cause more severe COPD symptoms.
- Bacterial, fungal, or viral upper respiratory infections also will make COPD worse.
- If you have other health problems in addition to COPD and emphysema, for example, cardiomyopathy, obesity, congestive heart failure, pneumonia, or lung cancer, your COPD and emphysema symptoms will worsen.
What are the stages of COPD?
The GOLD system measures your breathing air volume (FEV1) as compared to normal predicted breathing and designates your breathing into one of four COPD stages are:
- Stage 1 or Mild (80% of normal)
- Stage 2 or Moderate (50-80%)
- Stage 3 or Severe (30-50%) emphysema
- Stage 4 or Very severe, (less than 30%), end-stage, severe or end-stage emphysema
Talk to your doctor to discuss these staging systems and how they may relate tour individual problem and treatment.
What are the stages of emphysema?
Using the GOLD system (as used in COPD), doctors classify COPD and emphysema as stages 1-4 with 4 being the worst or most severe stage.
How do doctors diagnose COPD vs. emphysema?
Doctors use the same tests to diagnose COPD and/or emphysema. The tests may include:
COPD vs. emphysema treatments
The treatments for both COPD and emphysema are the same:
- Stop smoking
- Bronchodilators (short and long acting)
- Long acting beta agonists
- Long acting muscarinic agonists
- Phosphodiesterase inhibitors
- Anti-inflammatory drugs
- Antibiotics (as needed)
- Mucolytic agents
- Oxygen therapy
Other medications or treatments may be helpful or needed in special circumstances, for example, alpha-1-antitrypsin replacement, or mechanical assisted breathing for a short time).
Your doctor may recommend surgery to reduce your symptoms and/or to help restore some of your lung function. Surgical procedures your doctor may discuss with you include removing the nonfunctional air sacs in your lungs (large bullae) to decompress lung tissue, lung volume reduction to decrease lung hyperinflation, endobronchial valve placement, and lung transplant.
Will lifestyle changes slow the progression of COPD or emphysema?
It is possible to slow the progression of COPD/emphysema by quitting smoking, medical and/or other surgical treatments, and physical therapy. However, even with aggressive and appropriate treatment often COPD will progress.
Is there a cure for COPD or emphysema?
Symptoms and complications can be treated and managed, however, here is no cure for COPD/emphysema.
What is the life expectancy for COPD vs. emphysema? Are they fatal?
The life expectancy can be estimated for COPD/emphysema by the BODE index previously mentioned. However, it is not possible to determine accurate life expectancy for these patients because of so many variables that may change. Nonetheless, types 3- 4 COPD/emphysema puts you at risk for many serious or fatal complications like pneumonia or heart failure. For this reason, some doctors consider types 3-4 COPD/emphysema to be a life threatening disease.
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Boka, K. "Emphysema." Medscape. Updated: Aug 31, 2016.
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NIH; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "COPD National Action Plan." Updated: May 15, 2017.
NIH; National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. "What is COPD?" Updated: Apr 28, 2017.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)." Updated: Oct 31, 2014.
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Sharafkhaneh, A. et al. Emphysema. Proc Am Thorac Soc. 2008 May 1; 5(4): 475–477. doi: 10.1513/pats.200708-126ET
Boka, K. "Emphysema." Medscape. Updated: Aug 31. 2016.
Kleinschmidt, P. "Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Emphysema in Emergency Medicine." Medscape. Updated: Jun 08, 2017.