The main difference between allergic asthma and non-allergic asthma are the triggers. While exercise, cold air, and even strong emotions such as stress can trigger non-allergic asthma, allergens, including dust mites, pet dander, pollen, and mold, are the most common culprits of allergic asthma. Cockroaches can also be a trigger, as their poop, saliva, and body parts can cause an allergic reaction in some people (So gross).How can I tell the difference between typical allergies and allergic asthma?“Allergies and asthma tend to run together, so you’ll often find people with allergies who also have asthma,” Sonali Bose, M.D., associate professor of Medicine, Pulmonary, Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, and Pediatrics at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, tells SELF. “But there are also a disproportionate number of people who have seasonal allergies without any asthma at all.” In fact, more than 50 million people in the U.S. are allergic to something, per the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America.The big giveaway that you’re dealing with nothing more than plain ol’ allergies? You have weird nose- and eye-related symptoms without any respiratory action like wheezing, asthma’s calling card. Having allergic asthma, however, means your body might pull from a grab bag of typical allergy and asthma symptoms, mixing and matching in a way that causes overlap between the two.“Allergies can manifest in many different ways,” says Dr. Bose. “We often see upper airway symptoms—runny nose, itchy eyes—that are the allergic response. That by itself wouldn’t make you worry about asthma. But if someone is wheezing, has chest tightness, and shortness of breath, then you have to consider whether their inflammation is also involving the lower airways,” she says. That’s because “asthma is a disease of the lower airways—particularly the small, very tiny, airways we have in our lungs,” she adds. “It’s geographically separated from a lot of what we consider allergies in the nose, throat, and eyes.”What kinds of allergic asthma tests are typically done to reach a diagnosis?When it comes to allergic asthma, you probably already have a hunch about what triggers your symptoms. For example, if you get wheezy every time you dogsit, Spike is probably the culprit. Regardless of what trigger you suspect, it’s still important to see an allergist to figure out what specifically is causing your system to act up. Doctors can perform skin or blood tests to help you get to the bottom of what exactly is setting off your allergic asthma. It’s also a good idea to keep a diary of anything that makes your asthma symptoms worse. This can be a huge help in figuring out your triggers.History is the most important tool to diagnosing allergic asthma. “A lot of it is talking to the patient and trying to understand what their symptoms have been, the environment, and their risk factors going all the way back to when they were in their mom’s uterus, believe it or not, through childhood, and into adulthood,” says Dr. Bose. “A lot of those things are important for creating the foundation for diagnosis. But we also have different types of breathing tests that can be useful in diagnosing asthma.”Those tests can include:A spirometry test that diagnoses asthma severity and measures how well treatment is working.A fractional exhaled nitric oxide test that measures how much inflammation you have in your lungs.Peak expiratory flow tests that measure how fast you can blow out air using maximum effort.
A high-pitched whistling sound when you breathe is the first tip-off that air is fighting to make its way into or out of your lungs. That sound is aptly named wheezing, and it is something that people with lung conditions—like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—have to deal with on a regular basis. But how can you tell which is to blame for your labored breathing? Asthma and COPD sound similar, but they have fundamental differences when it comes to symptoms, causes, and treatment—here’s everything you need to know.What is asthma?Asthma is a chronic lung disease and symptoms can range from mild to life-threatening, according to the American Lung Association. With asthma, the two bronchial tubes responsible for carrying air into and out of your lungs are inflamed and narrowed. When something like pet dander, pollen, dust mites, or mold triggers your asthma symptoms, these airways become even more swollen, and the muscles surrounding them constrict and spasm. No surprise, this makes it difficult to breathe. Because there isn’t a cure, treatment is focused on keeping symptoms under control so they don’t severely impact a person’s quality of life.What is COPD?COPD, the umbrella term for a group of conditions—emphysema and chronic bronchitis, among them—causes airflow blockage and breathing-related problems, per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).Similar to asthma, with chronic bronchitis, the bronchial tubes become inflamed, but for different reasons. Instead of, say, Fluffy the cat triggering inflammation, it’s most often due to long-term exposure to things like smoke. Other defining features of chronic bronchitis include a cough that you just can’t get rid of and excessive mucus, according to the U.S. Library of Medicine.Emphysema, which often goes hand-in-hand with chronic bronchitis, destroys the air sacs at the end of the tiny air passages in the lungs. This, too, is the result of exposure to cigarette smoke and other irritating particles or gasses, according to the Mayo Clinic.So, what is the main difference between asthma and COPD?There’s, unfortunately, no way to prevent asthma, but that’s not the case with COPD. For 85 to 90% of people with COPD, cigarette smoking is the culprit.“COPD is very much linked to a history of smoking, whereas asthma is not,” Neeta Ogden, M.D., an asthma specialist and immunologist in New York City, and a member of the Medical Scientific Council of Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, tells SELF. “People with asthma will often say they have never touched a cigarette and avoid smoke as much as possible.”With that said, long-term exposure to other lung irritants like chemical fumes and air pollution also play a role in COPD, according to the American Lung Association.Another big difference: Chronic bronchitis, a type of COPD, classically presents with a chronic cough that lasts for months, which isn’t always the case with asthma, Dr. Ogden says. If you’re still not sure which one you’re dealing with, ask yourself this: Do you experience wheezing and chest tightness more at night? Or do you also deal with allergies, like hay fever, or eczema? Then asthma is likely your answer, per National Jewish Health.