Emphysema vs. Chronic Bronchitis: Understanding the Differences

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD for short, is the third leading cause of death in the United States. Millions of people have been diagnosed with COPD, and even more may have it and have not yet been diagnosed. It affects both men and women, and occurs most often in middle-aged and older adults.

     

    COPD is a major cause of disability in its most severe stages, but it typically develops slowly over time. Symptoms, which include a chronic cough, chest tightness, wheezing and shortness of breath with activity, may be mild at first but worsen as airways become increasingly damaged. Eventually, symptoms begin to interfere with the activities of daily living, such as walking, cooking and even personal care.

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    COPD is not contagious, but there is no cure. Lung damage cannot be reversed, even with treatment. However, the progression of the disease can be slowed with proper care and lifestyle changes. This will allow you to feel better and stay more active.

     

    Understanding the Types of COPD

     

    COPD is a blanket term that encompasses two different types of pulmonary diseases: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

     

    Asthma is also sometimes referred to as COPD, but this is incorrect. Asthma is quite different from COPD. I cover the differences between asthma and COPD here.

     

    Emphysema is the disease most people think of as COPD. Your airways start with the bronchial tubes, which branch off into smaller and smaller tubes called bronchioles. The bronchioles branch further, finally into tiny air sacs called alveoli. In emphysema, the walls between many of these air sacs become damaged. This causes the air sacs to lose their shape and become floppy.

     

    Because the walls break down, in the end there are fewer and larger air sacs instead of many tiny ones. When that happens, the air sacs lose their respiratory efficiency. In other words, the amount of gas exchange in the lungs is greatly reduced. Your lungs cannot make good use of oxygen in the air you breathe.

     

    In chronic bronchitis, it is the lining of the airways that becomes problematic and interferes with breathing. The airway lining is constantly irritated and inflamed. This causes it to thicken and produce lots of thick mucus. Both of those events make it hard to breathe.

     

    What Difference Does the Type of COPD Make?

     

    That's a great question to ask, and it's always important to understand everything you can about your diagnosis. But, the fact is, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute, most people who have COPD have both chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

     

    The outlook for both conditions is basically the same (they are not curable or reversable) and the treatment is also the same. Either way, as long as you follow your prescribed treatment plan, work closely with your physician and make lifestyle changes--such as quitting smoking and losing weight, if needed--you should be able to maintain your quality of life for quite a few years.

Published On: May 14, 2014