Sad but true: It's possible to have both asthma and COPD. This double whammy is known as Asthma COPD Overlap Syndrome, or ACOS. Nursing Times explains that while both asthma and COPD conditions make it harder to breathe, they're different in several ways:
- Asthma often begins before age 20; COPD typically develops when you're 40 or older.
- The symptoms of asthma may come and go; but COPD remains a constant. If you have asthma, you may have periods of time where your breathing is normal. COPD symptoms are persistent and slowly get worse over time.
- Asthma symptoms are caused by specific triggers like exposure to allergens or during exercise. COPD is caused by longer term exposure to irritants.
- Symptoms of asthma include chest tightness, coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath. The most obvious symptoms of COPD are difficulty breathing and productive coughing.
Children with asthma are at greater risk of developing COPD when they get older, Federal Practitioner warns.
Hard to diagnose
The American Lung Association explains that ACOS isn't a separate disease; it just means that you have symptoms of COPD and asthma.
ACOS can be difficult to diagnose, because, as the name tells us, the symptoms overlap. To find out whether you have ACOS, your doctor can perform tests like spirometry, where you breathe into a tube to measure how much air and how fast you can exhale. Your doctor may order chest x-ray or CT scan, as well, the American Lung Association notes.
Unfortunately, ACOS is more than double trouble for your health. This combo adds up to much worse health woes: more severe symptoms, worse quality of life and more trips to the doctor than either condition on its own, according to the American Lung Association.
Tips for management
There's not a specific treatment for ACOS, either, but inhalers used to treat either asthma or COPD may help, says the American Lung Association. Your doctor may prescribe:
- Low-dose asthma inhalers with corticosteroids to treat inflammation in your airways.
- Long-acting inhalers with bronchodilators to keep your airways open for 12 to 24 hours.
- Long-acting muscarinic agonists (LAMA) to ease your COPD symptoms and let you breathe better.
You'll likely get a customized treatment plan, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. In addition to medication to reduce symptoms, some patients take supplemental oxygen. Pulmonary (lung) rehabilitation is another option.
The American Thoracic Society explains that pulmonary rehabilitation is designed to strengthen your lungs and help you breathe better. It's a mix of exercise and education that goes along with regular use of your asthma inhaler and other medicines.
You'll probably have pulmonary rehab sessions two or three times a week for several weeks, supervised by a team of healthcare professionals that can include nurses, physical therapists, respiratory therapists and dieticians. You may start with simple sitting exercises and work your way up to more time and more vigorous exercises like walking on a treadmill.
The rehab program includes information on how to manage symptoms, as well as the right way to use your asthma inhaler and other medications and equipment. You'll also learn breathing techniques you can use when you exercise or when you feel stressed.
Staying healthy is extra-important if you have ACOS. If you smoke, quitting is the biggest step toward improving your breathing, Federal Practitioner advises. You should avoid other environmental triggers, including extreme heat or cold, dust, fumes and air pollution. When air quality is bad, spare your lungs by staying indoors. Check the National Weather Service for air quality forecasts and alerts.
Eating right can make a big difference, according to the American Lung Association. Your diet should be heavy on complex carbohydrates, fresh vegetables and fruit, plus plenty of fiber.
That said, the Lung Health Institute lists foods you might want to cut back on. The list includes carbonated drinks, fried foods and cured meats. Surprisingly, antioxidant-rich cruciferous vegetables—broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts—are on that list. This is because they can cause gas which fills your abdomen and restricts your breathing. (While some people may be thrilled to be told to avoid broccoli, it's still important to eat plenty of vegetables. And, if you don't get gas, broccoli and cauliflower are chockfull of nutrients.)
When asthma and COPD overlap, taking care of yourself can be more difficult. But it's more important than ever. And be assured, you can manage your symptoms and get relief with the right combination of medication use, lifestyle changes and medical help.