Common conditions that co-exist with COPD

In addition to the lung diseases that come under the COPD umbrella there are other lung conditions that commonly co-exist with COPD. These include: asthma, bronchiectasis and interstitial lung disease. These are briefly explained below.

Asthma is a condition of chronic swelling of the breathing tubes or airways. There are many factors that can trigger an asthma attack including infection, exercise and environmental factors, such as cold air or pollens.

Swelling of the airway wall and tightening of the muscles around the airway results in the narrowing of the breathing tubes (bronchi and bronchioles). Wheeze, chest tightness, breathlessness and cough are classic symptoms of asthma.

The swelling may produce an obstruction of the breathing tubes or airways, similar to COPD. Some people have both COPD and asthma.

Asthma is often believed to be a disease that affects children and young adults. However, asthma is found in all age groups.

During an asthma attack, the breathing tubes or airways become inflamed, swollen and blocked with sticky sputum (as shown in the previous diagram). This makes breathing more difficult. For more information on asthma visit Asthma Australia or call 1800 278 462.

Because asthma and COPD have similar symptoms, it may be difficult to distinguish between the two conditions. We know that many older Australians being treated for asthma, in fact, have COPD and vice versa. Asthma and COPD have different causes, affect the body differently and some of the treatments are different. It is important, therefore, to determine if you have asthma, COPD or both. The best way to do this is by having your doctor perform a lung function test (spirometry).
Bronchiectasis is a lung condition involving the destruction of the airways’ or breathing tubes’ inner lining and widening or dilatation of the breathing tubes (bronchi and bronchioles). Bronchiectasis is not caused by cigarette smoking and is usually caused by a previous severe infection of the lungs. Bronchiectasis may occur in anyone who has had severe infections, including those with COPD. Bronchiectasis is characterised by repeated episodes of acute bronchial or airway infection with increased coughing and sputum production. This alternates with periods of chronic infection and mild coughing. In bronchiectasis, sputum becomes difficult to clear. Sputum can be trapped in ‘pockets’ within the breathing tubes, which can lead to further infections and damage to the breathing tubes or airways. Sputum is often white. If it changes to a different colour such as yellow, brown or green, it usually means there is an infection. Sometimes people with bronchiectasis will have discoloured sputum even when well.
Interstitial lung disease refers to a group of lung conditions, including pulmonary fibrosis, in which the lungs harden and stiffen (become fibrosed or scarred). During interstitial lung disease, the walls of the air sacs (alveoli) thicken, which reduces the transfer of oxygen (or other gases) to and from the blood. Interstitial lung disease may be caused by immune conditions, asbestosis, exposure to chemicals or irritants, or have no known traceable cause (idiopathic).
Pulmonary hypertension refers to high blood pressure in the blood vessels (arteries and/or veins) that run alongside your lungs.  This can occur as a consequence of having a lung condition such as COPD for a long time or be caused by other conditions such as heart disease.  Pulmonary hypertension can cause extra strain on the right side of your heart over time which can cause breathlessness and fatigue.  If your doctor suspects you may have pulmonary hypertension, they may send you for further screening such as an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart.)