COPD vs. Pulmonary Fibrosis: Differences and Similarities

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on August 19, 2022
3 min read

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and pulmonary fibrosis (also called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, or IPF) are both serious lifelong diseases that make it hard for you to breathe.

They’re separate conditions that can damage your lungs in opposite ways and for different reasons. But symptoms of COPD and pulmonary fibrosis can be so alike that it can be tricky for doctors to tell them apart. Some experts believe you can have both diseases at the same time.

COPD is an umbrella term for several types of lung diseases, including emphysema. What they have in common are damaged air sacs or collapsed tubes that may leave you feeling breathless. IPF, on the other hand, is when your lung tissue gets scarred and stiff.

COPD. Smoking is the main cause. You might be at higher risk for COPD if you have asthma or breathe in a lot of pollutants like dust.

IPF. Idiopathic means unknown cause. But researchers believe there’s a link between pulmonary fibrosis and factors such as:

COPD and IPF are both progressive diseases. That means they get worse over time.

They’re also largely diseases of age. About 2 in 3 people who have IPF are older than 60. Chances of COPD are highest among people who are 65-84.

IPF is more common in men than in women. But women are about 50% more likely to get COPD, even though they’re less likely to smoke. Doctors don’t know exactly why, but smaller lungs in women may play a role.

COPD and IPF have many symptoms in common. They both can leave you feeling short of breath. They also may cause:

  • Tiredness
  • Weight loss
  • Swelling in your legs

The two conditions can differ in noticeable ways.

Coughs. COPD usually gives you wheezing coughs with mucus in your throat. With IPF, you’ll likely have a dry, hacking cough.

Clubbing. This is when your fingers grow wider and rounder. Your muscles might ache, too. These symptoms are not typical for COPD.

There’s no cure for COPD or IPF. But many similar treatments may help ease symptoms of either disease.

Quit smoking. This is the first thing your doctor will recommend.

Eat healthy and exercise. This means limiting salt, sugar, and saturated fats, and loading up on whole grains, lean sources of protein, and fresh vegetables and fruit.

Oxygen therapy. Extra oxygen from a tank that moves around with you may help you breathe easier. You can use it even during exercise or sleep.

Pulmonary rehabilitation. You’ll practice exercises to help ease your stress and aid your breathing.

Surgery. There are some surgeries that might help people with COPD. Your surgeon may take out the air spaces in the air sacs of your lungs to help you breathe easier. Another way is to remove small pieces of your damaged lungs to make room for healthy tissue. In severe cases of IPF or COPD, you may need a lung transplant.

Sometimes, COPD and IPF require different drugs and therapies.

Medication. The scarring in your lungs from IPF can’t be healed. But drugs such as nintedanib or pirfenidone can help slow the damage.

Bronchodilators. These medicines usually come in an inhaler. If you have COPD, your doctor may prescribe them with or without steroids to help relax and widen your airways.