Both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) are classified as obstructive lung diseases. They are characterized by a narrowing of the airways that obstructs airflow when a person exhales. In asthma, the obstruction tends to be intermittent and reversible, but in COPD, it is unremitting and less responsive to medication.


Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways. It is the eighth most common chronic condition in the United States, affecting more than 23 million Americans. Without proper management and prompt treatment of attacks, asthma can be life threatening.

In 2007 (the most recent year for which statistics are available), nearly 3,500 people in the United States died of the disorder. Most of them were seniors. Public opinion may tend to regard asthma as a concern for children,  but the number of people over age 65 who are diagnosed with asthma has been increasing and now accounts for about 11 percent of all individuals with the condition. Because people older than age 65 are likely to have other health problems and more frequent symptoms if they develop asthma, finding the appropriate treatment is particularly important in this age group.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is a term that encompasses both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The symptoms of COPD develop slowly over several years and include wheezing, a chronic cough that produces phlegm, and progressive shortness of breath. COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States.


This is a disorder characterized by destruction of lung tissue, including its elastic fibers. By reducing elasticity of the lungs and destroying the walls of some of the air sacs, emphysema leads to the collapse of the airways, reducing airflow. Nearly four million Americans have emphysema, which is most common among men age 65 and older.

Emphysema claims more than 12,000 lives each year.

Chronic bronchitis

A recurrent problem, chronic bronchitis is defined by the coughing up of phlegm nearly every day for at least three months of the year (for example, every winter) for two or more consecutive years. The condition reduces the diameter of the airways through a combination of airway inflammation and overproduction of mucus.

Almost 10 million cases of chronic bronchitis are diagnosed each year in the United States, and it results in more than 900 deaths. According to the American Lung Association, women are more than twice as likely as men to be diagnosed with chronic bronchitis.

Sleep Apnea

Sleep apnea is characterized by repeated episodes of breathing cessation (apnea) during sleep. These episodes last from 10 seconds to nearly a minute, ending with a brief partial arousal. This can occur (and disrupt sleep) hundreds of times throughout one night.

An estimated 12 million Americans have obstructive sleep apnea, yet 95 percent of them are undiagnosed and untreated. Sleep apnea is about twice as common in men as in women.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 02 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 15 Dec 2014