What COPD Is Not

Last updated: November 2020

There are diseases that may mimic COPD. A wrong diagnosis may lead to the wrong treatment. So, here is what COPD is not.

It’s not…


It certainly can mimic COPD. It’s a chronic airway disease. It’s an obstructive airway disease. It causes airflow limitation. Some of the same medicines to treat COPD are used to treat asthma. They can both be controlled with similar medicines. Symptoms are caused by exposure to triggers, such as strong smells.

But, asthma is not COPD.

Unlike COPD, asthma symptoms are completely or almost completely reversible. This can be accomplished with time or treatment. Between asthma attacks, lung function is normal or close to normal.

Heart failure

It certainly can mimic COPD. It basically mimics a COPD flare-up. It can make you feel very short of breath. This is especially true when you exert yourself. It can make you feel chest tightness. It can make you a cough. It can make you feel fatigued. Like COPD, it can be controlled.

But it’s not COPD.

Heart failure is where your heart becomes too weak to effectively pump blood through your lungs. This is what makes you feel winded, especially with exertion. Treatment for heart failure is completely different than treatment for COPD. This is why a proper diagnosis is so important. Treatment here is medicine to make you pee, lower your blood pressure, and strengthen your heart.

Lung Cancer

It can also mimic COPD symptoms. It can make you feel short of breath. It can cause airway obstructions and airflow limitation. This can make you feel short of breath. It can make you wheeze. It can make you cough and feel chest tightness or pain. It can certainly make you feel fatigued.

But it’s not COPD.

Lung cancer is when mutations occur in certain lung cells. These cells abnormally or uncontrollably divide. This causes masses of tissue called tumors. They can obstruct airways and cause symptoms similar to COPD. Like heart failure, treatment for lung cancer is different than treatment for COPD.


Similarly, it can make you feel short of breath. It causes fatigue and can make you feel very weak. A classic sign is pain when you inhale. Like COPD, it can wipe you out. And it certainly can cause COPD flare-ups.

But it’s not COPD.

Pneumonia is a lung infection. It’s when your alveoli become infected and pus-filled. It’s usually caused by a bacteria. So, the most common treatment for it is antibiotics.


It can make you feel short of breath. It can make you feel winded when you walk. It can make you wheeze and cough.  And this can get worse during flare-ups. It can cause you to have thick secretions that are hard to bring up. It’s often associated with respiratory infections, like pneumonia, which may cause flare-ups. And this is similar to COPD.

But it’s not COPD.

It’s caused by airways that are abnormally dilated and inflamed. It’s caused by severe infections early in life. It’s also a common comorbidity with cystic fibrosis. Treatment involves antibiotics to treat the infections and mucus thinners to loosen secretions.

A proper diagnosis is important

Years ago all people diagnosed with trouble breathing were diagnosed with asthma. This was not so good because not all shortness of breath is caused by asthma. And when it’s not asthma, the treatment is different. So, this is just something doctors have to keep in mind when you present with shortness of breath. If it’s COPD, then you’ll be treated with COPD medicine. If it’s not, then the treatment is different.

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