Be Mindful of Your Lung Health

Be Mindful of Your Lung Health

Lee esto en EspañolBreath is life. Anyone who has ever had trouble breathing knows how frightening the experience can be. Sometimes people think breathing issues are just part of growing older. A nagging cough or slight wheeze could just be caused by a cold, but it could also be a sign of something more serious.

Two of the most common breathing ailments are chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. While the two conditions have similarities, they have important differences. Let’s look at how they’re defined and treated.


With COPD, airways in the lungs become inflamed, making it more difficult to breathe. The American Lung Association (ALA), leaving site icon reports COPD affects more than 12 million Americans. In the United States, it’s actually the sixth leading cause of overall death behind heart disease, cancer, COVID-19, accidents and stroke. While there are several causes for COPD, the most common is smoking. People with COPD have a greater risk of developing lung cancer, heart disease and other serious health conditions.

Many people don’t know they have COPD until it has reached an advanced stage. Symptoms of COPD can include:

  • Chronic cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheeze or chest tightness
  • Fatigue
  • Frequent lung infections

If you have any of these symptoms, reach out to your doctor right away. The earlier COPD is diagnosed, the more successfully it can be treated. Depending on your symptoms and health history, there are different approaches to treatment. These include:

  • Quit smoking
  • Medications
  • Oxygen
  • Pulmonary rehabilitation

Your doctor will explain which is best for you and why.


More than 25 million Americans are living with asthma—including 5.5 million children — according to ALA. leaving site icon While there is no cure for asthma, it can be successfully treated to allow people to live normal, healthy lives. Much like COPD, asthma is caused by inflammation of the lung’s airways that makes it hard to breathe.

Symptoms are similar to COPD and include:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

One difference between the two diseases is that asthma is usually diagnosed early in life. COPD shows up later, especially in smokers. Asthma can also be tied to genetics and family history. If one of your parents has asthma, you have a greater risk of developing the condition.

There isn’t a cure for asthma, so controlling it is important. To help you, your doctor will:

  • Create an asthma action plan that details the medicines you should take and when to take them
  • Provide medications to help with both long-term control and fast-acting relief during an asthma attack
  • Teach you how to use a “peak flow meter” to track how well air moves through your lungs

Your lung health is important. If you're experiencing shortness of breath or other related symptoms, talk with your doctor. 

Sources: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD),  leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2023; COPD Trends Brief, leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2023; Warning Signs of Lung Disease,  leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2023;  Learn About Asthma,  leaving site icon American Lung Association, 2023; What is COPD?leaving site icon Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2023
Important Plan Information 

Originally published 9/24/2018; Revised 2019, 2021, 2023