I have breathing problems

When it is difficult to breathe - The most important facts about the respiratory diseases, asthma and COPD

Asthma - the common ailment
Bronchial asthma is chronic inflammation of the bronchi, the airways in the lungs. Chronic means that the sick - once the disease has broken out - often suffer from hypersensitivity of the bronchial system throughout their life. The lower respiratory tract is particularly sensitive to certain substances. Small stimuli such as grass pollen or animal hair are often enough to trigger an asthma attack. The mucous membranes in the bronchi are hypersensitive and swell up. These narrows the airways. The consequences are shortness of breath, severe coughing, which is often accompanied by sputum, and an oppressive feeling in the chest.

An estimated four million people in Germany suffer from asthma. That corresponds to the population of Rhineland-Palatinate. Children are particularly often affected; asthma is now the most common chronic disease in childhood. Whether and how severely an adult patient suffers from asthma depends in most cases on how severe the disease was in childhood. Around half of the children no longer have asthma in adulthood. The bronchial tubes remain susceptible for a lifetime.

COPD - the smoker's disease
Less known, but just as wide spread, is chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD for short. Here, too, those affected complain of shortness of breath, coughing and increased mucus production. Especially in the morning, the patients often torment themselves with strong coughing, inhaling and especially exhaling are difficult. In contrast to asthma, COPD almost exclusively affects adults over the age of 40. Because the main trigger for this lung disease is, in nine out of ten cases, smoking - which is why COPD is colloquially referred to as the smoker's lung. The constant inhalation of the pollutants leads to an inflammation of the airways in the patient and consequently to a chronic - i.e. permanent - narrowing of the bronchi. As a result, those affected get less air and feel short of breath. The risk of developing COPD increases with the number of cigarettes smoked per day. For most of those affected, COPD is at the end of a long smoking career. A major difference to asthma is that COPD patients initially only suffer from physical exertion, but later on suffer constantly from shortness of breath. Asthma patients usually only feel shortness of breath during an acute attack.

Similar symptoms - different causes
Although the causes of asthma and COPD are very different, the symptoms of the patients are similar. Even a doctor can often not distinguish between the two diseases at first sight. A strong indication of an asthma illness are the characteristic whistling and humming noises that asthmatics make when breathing. Cigarette consumption, on the other hand, is an important indicator of COPD, so the suspicion is usually corroborated by talking to the doctor.

Asthma or COPD? Correct diagnosis is crucial as both lung diseases are treated differently. The doctor can use a series of lung function tests (spirometry, nitric oxide measurement, and bronchoprovocation) to determine both the type and severity of the disease, thus enabling the correct treatment.

The treatment of patients with asthma or COPD is individually tailored to the severity of the disease. In the case of asthmatics, doctors mainly rely on a combination of anti-inflammatory drugs and active ingredients that dilate the bronchi. This is an effective way of treating an acute attack. Since asthma diseases are often associated with allergies, it can help patients to avoid the allergen - provided it is clear what the patient is allergic to - to prevent an attack. Patients with COPD are also treated with medication. The doctor also prescribes bronchodilator drugs. Therapy also includes physical exercise and cigarette smoking. Like asthma, COPD cannot be completely cured; the symptoms can only be alleviated.
Usually the patient is completely unprepared. You feel as if your chest is being constricted. You can no longer breathe, feel fear. You try to breathe frantically. But the harder they want to force it, the less air they get. They desperately try to get rid of the pressure on their lungs by coughing, but that makes the situation even worse - this is what an asthma attack feels like to someone. Bronchial asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, COPD for short, are the most common chronic respiratory diseases in Germany. Here are the most important facts:



bronchial asthma


Age at onset of illness

especially childhood, but also adolescents and adults

Adults over 40 years

Percentage of sick people in Germany

5 percent

5-10 percent

Beginning of the complaints

suddenly, often after hay fever or after infection

slowly increasing, creeping


z. B. Allergies in "allergic asthma"

z. B. Virus infections in "non-allergic asthma"

Main risk factor: smoking, but also air pollution and frequent respiratory infections in childhood

typical feature

whistling, hissing noise when breathing (wheezing)

"Air congestion" (feeling of not getting enough air)


seizure-like AHA symptoms (sputum, cough, shortness of breath)

acute asthma attack: symptoms intensified, accompanied by anxiety and a racing heart

chronic AHA symptoms (sputum, cough, shortness of breath)


Shortness of breath

in the event of a seizure

initially under load

to cough


morning cough

Ejection amount



Narrowing of the airways

in the event of a seizure



Primarily anti-inflammatory drugs, often combined with bronchodilator drugs

Avoid the triggering allergen

Bronchodilator medication

Give up cigarettes

Body training

Competence network asthma / COPD
In order to promote research on the two chronic respiratory diseases asthma bronchiale and COPD, the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) founded a nationwide competence network on asthma and COPD at the beginning of 2009. The competence network will initially be funded for three years with a total of 6.4 million euros. Three further funding phases are planned until 2021, in which the competence network is to be continued and expanded. Scientists from various disciplines will research the origin, diagnosis and therapy of both diseases. One focus of the competence network is the establishment of imaging procedures for lung diagnostics in clinical practice.

Contact person:
Dr. Maike Schnoor
Office of the Competence Network for Asthma and COPD
Clinic for internal medicine with a focus on pulmonology
Phillips University of Marburg
Baldingerstrasse 1
35043 Marburg
Tel.: 06421 586-6435
Fax: 06421 586-8987
Email: [email protected]