What is the Difference Between Emphysema and Asthma?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 08 June 2019
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Emphysema and asthma are two respiratory diseases that share some similar symptoms. Though sometimes confused, these diseases affect different parts of the respiratory system and generally have a distinct prognosis. Asthma, though often a serious condition, is usually far more treatable than emphysema.

One of the main differences between emphysema and asthma is the location of the infection. Asthma infects the airways, usually causing a reversible block that limits oxygen intake and restricts airway flow. Emphysema attacks the lung tissue, causing a progressive breakdown over time. It is possible to have both conditions simultaneously, as they are separate diseases. If the respiratory system is in bad condition due to smoking or other factors, either of the conditions may develop.

Emphysema and asthma tend to affect different groups of people. Asthma is often diagnosed in childhood, as a result of environmental factors, allergies, secondhand smoke exposure, and a variety of other issues. Emphysema almost exclusively occurs in adults, generally beginning to appear after lung function peaks at around age 30. Asthma can develop in adults, particularly those that smoke or are heavily exposed to pollution. Emphysema almost never appears in children or young adults.


The treatment options for asthma and emphysema have varying success rates. Both conditions are frequently treated with a medication that opens airways called a broncodilator. This medication is usually taken in an aerated form through an inhaler, to speed its progress to the lungs. Steroids are sometimes also used in inhalers to help reduce lung inflammation. Asthma is usually managed by inhalers and avoiding irritants to the respiratory system; many children with asthma experience a lessening or total dissipation of the condition as they age and lungs grow to full capacity.

A large part of treatment for both diseases involves avoiding factors that cause attacks or symptoms. Strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, allergy exposure, and smoking are all highly discouraged for patients with either condition. Smoking is seen as especially dangerous; many adults that develop either conditions have a long history of smoking. People with emphysema and asthma may also be sensitive to secondhand smoke, so avoiding all sources of smoke inhalation at home and in public may be essential to good health .

The true difference between emphysema and asthma lies in the prognosis. Asthma causes an inflammation that is nearly always reversible with treatment; generally, the condition will not significantly worsen over time. Emphysema irreparably destroys lung tissue and the vital air sacs; although the disease can be slowed, it cannot be stopped.


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