Do you understand the difference between asthma and COPD?

Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reveal that roughly 15 million adults here in the U.S. are suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, while another 19 million adults suffer from asthma. Furthermore, CDC statistics show that while roughly 3,500 people die from asthma every year, more than 130,000 people die from COPD every year.

As astounding as these figures are, many of us might be lacking a real understanding of what the difference is between these two respiratory conditions.

What exactly is asthma?

In general, asthma is defined by the airways becoming both inflamed and narrowed, and has a strong allergic element. What this means is that an asthma attack -- characterized by shortness of breath, coughing and chest tightness or pain -- can be triggered by a multitude of environmental factors from pollen and smoke to exercise and extreme shifts in the weather.

Asthma typically develops during childhood and has no known cause. However, medical experts have identified exposure to secondhand smoke, obesity and heredity (i.e., having a relative with the condition) as possible risk factors.  

What exactly is COPD?

In general, COPD -- a shorthand phrase used for conditions like emphysema and bronchitis -- is defined by the obstruction of the body's airways. Those suffering from this difficult condition typically experience a variety of progressive and continuous symptoms, including chronic coughing, buildup of thick mucus and shortness of breath.  

COPD generally develops in older adults and is attributed to smoking in the overwhelming majority of cases. However, both environmental and occupational exposures have also been identified as risk factors.  

It's important to understand that those who has been left unable to work due to a diagnosis of either asthma or COPD may be eligible for Social Security disability benefits. Furthermore, they should understand that an experienced legal professional can help them better understand their rights and fight to secure these benefits.

Source: U.S. News & World Report Health, "Is it asthma or COPD?" Lisa Esposito, Feb. 18, 2015