Asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis are diseases of the lung airways. All three conditions affect breathing, but they can differ in their severity, causes, and treatment.

Asthma affects about 26 million people in the United States. It causes a narrowing of the airways due to tightening of the muscles and inflammation around the small airways.

Emphysema and bronchitis can be part of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which also causes a narrowing of the airways.

Emphysema involves the destruction of tiny air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs. Bronchitis involves inflammation of the bronchial tubes resulting in coughing with mucus production.

In this article, we will compare the symptoms, severity, transmission, causes, and treatment of all three conditions.

there is a photo of glass lungs with a tree branch Share on Pinterest
Eoneren/Getty Images

Asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis share a few common symptoms. These include shortness of breath, wheezing, and chest tightness.

However, one distinct symptom of bronchitis and emphysema is chronic cough alongside sputum. People with emphysema or bronchitis can also experience other symptoms, such as:

  • blue or gray lips or nails
  • chest pain
  • unexplained weight loss
  • abnormal heartbeat

Additionally, people with all three conditions may experience worsening symptoms or flares, most often occurring during winter.

The severity of asthma ranges from intermittent, where people experience symptoms occasionally, to severe persistent, where people experience symptoms regularly. However, the symptoms of asthma do not always worsen over time.

In some cases, asthma symptoms worsen with time due to exposure to specific allergens. This results in a significant reduction in lung function.

The severity of emphysema and bronchitis, which can be part of COPD illnesses, can also range from mild to severe. Severe COPD may cause damage to the lungs and lead to airflow blockage.

Smoking cigarettes can worsen COPD significantly.

However, overall, COPD is more severe than asthma. Asthma is a reversible condition that improves when a person receives the right medicines and treatment. On the contrary, COPD is a progressive disease that worsens over time and is not curable.

Both asthma and emphysema are noncommunicable diseases, which means they are not contagious and cannot spread from one person to another.

Several genetic and environmental factors lead to the development of these conditions.

Acute bronchitis can be contagious, and the viruses or bacteria that cause the condition can spread through droplets that people release while coughing or sneezing. Acute bronchitis can also transmit when there is physical contact with affected people.

Learn more about transmitting bronchitis here.

Several risk factors can cause asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis.


According to the American Lung Association, people are 3–6 times more likely to develop asthma if they have a biological parent with the condition.

Other common causes of asthma include:

  • allergies such as rhinitis or eczema
  • respiratory infections during childhood or infancy
  • occupational exposure to dust and chemical fumes
  • obesity
  • smoking

However, the triggers that can cause asthma vary from one person to another.

Learn about the genetic elements of asthma here.

Emphysema and bronchitis

Smoking is the most common cause of COPD, which can include emphysema and bronchitis.

About 80–90% of people with COPD are cigarette smokers. Symptoms of COPD mostly begin after exposure to at least 20 packs of cigarettes per year.

Other causes of COPD include:

  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • occupational exposure to chemicals, dust, and fumes
  • history of asthma and other childhood respiratory infections
  • alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, which is a rare genetic condition
  • exposure to indoor air pollution, such as from burning coal or biomass fuel

Learn more about the causes of COPD here.

Treatment methods will vary from person to person and depend on the condition they have.


The primary goal of asthma treatment is to reduce the severity and frequency of symptoms.

Doctors recommend treatment approaches according to the seriousness of the condition, the age of the person, and their response to the medication.

Asthma medications include quick-relief medicines for mild cases and long-term control medicines for severe cases.

Quick-relief medications include:

  • oral corticosteroids
  • inhaled short-acting beta2-agonists (SABAs)
  • short-acting anticholinergics

Long-term control medications include:

Doctors recommend bronchial thermoplasty only in severe cases that do not respond to other traditional treatments. Bronchial thermoplasty can decrease thick muscle in the airways.

Learn more about treatments for asthma here.


Doctors may also recommend nonpharmacological treatments to help reduce the symptoms of mild cases of bronchitis. These include:

  • hot tea
  • honey
  • ginger
  • throat lozenges

They may also recommend:

  • beta-agonists to reduce wheezing
  • analgesic and antipyretic medications to help ease fever or malaise
  • steroids to improve inflammation

Learn more home remedies for bronchitis and when to see a doctor here.


Treatment approaches doctors may recommend for emphysema include:

Surgery is the last resort for people with a severe disease that does not improve with medications.

Learn about home remedies for COPD here.

Asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis are diseases of the airways of the lungs, and the latter two can be part of COPD. These conditions share a few common symptoms. However, COPD, being a progressive disease, is more severe than asthma.

Transmission of bronchitis can take place from one person to others. Asthma and emphysema do not spread directly. Several factors are responsible for the development of asthma, emphysema, and bronchitis.

Many treatment approaches are also available depending on the severity of the condition and the age of the person.

People with symptoms should consult a doctor at an early stage to help avoid developing a severe form of these conditions.