Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and congestive heart failure (CHF) can leave you feeling short of breath. These two serious conditions share many symptoms and common risk factors. But the causes and treatments of each are very different.

COPD is a term for several types of serious respiratory conditions that block airflow to the lungs. The two main COPD conditions are chronic bronchitis and emphysema. These diseases leave your lungs unable to work at full strength, making it difficult to breathe.

With bronchitis, the airways that extend from your trachea into your lungs become irritated.

Emphysema occurs when serious damage is done to the tiny air sacs in your lungs where oxygen and carbon dioxide are exchanged.

CHF occurs when your heart becomes too weak to pump blood through your body. When blood isn’t pumped out of the heart effectively, fluid levels build up or become congested.

When blood backs up or pools in the heart, the heart beats more rapidly and expands to handle the greater volume of blood. This makes heart failure worse.

Similar symptoms

Shortness of breath and wheezing are symptoms of both COPD and CHF. Breathing difficulties are usually experienced after physical activity and tend to develop gradually.

At first, you may notice feeling out of breath after simple activities such as climbing a set of stairs. As COPD and CHF worsen, shortness of breath or wheezing may occur with little physical effort.

A chronic cough is one of the main symptoms of COPD. The cough can sometimes bring up mucus from your diseased airways. It can also be a dry cough.

People with CHF also tend to have a dry cough that produces sputum. Sputum is mucus that may also contain blood, pus, or bacteria.

COPD can also cause tightness in the chest. CHF doesn’t lead to chest tightness, but you may feel your heart beating irregularly or rapidly in your chest.

While they share some common symptoms, COPD and CHF develop from different causes.

The single most common cause of COPD is smoking. A history of smoking doesn’t guarantee you’ll get COPD, but it increases the likelihood of developing respiratory problems. Smoking is also a risk factor for heart disease and CHF.

Some cases of COPD may be linked to breathing secondhand smoke or inhaling chemicals in the workplace. A family history of COPD can also increase your likelihood of developing the condition.

Heart failure can be caused by coronary artery disease (CAD). This disease occurs when the blood vessels in the heart become blocked, which can cause heart attacks.

Other causes of heart failure include diseases of the heart valves, high blood pressure, and diseases of the heart muscle.

There’s no cure for either COPD or CHF, so treatment aims to slow the progression of the diseases and manage symptoms.

Because smoking can contribute to COPD and CHF, quitting smoking will improve your health, regardless of your condition.

Regular physical activity is important to strengthen your heart and lungs, but both COPD and CHF can limit what types of exercises you can do. Talk with your doctor about activities that are safe, and what precautions you should take before and during exercise.

Different medications are used to treat COPD and CHF.


A common COPD medication is a bronchodilator. This medication relaxes the muscles around your airways, making breathing easier.

Short-acting bronchodilators can last up to six hours and are usually recommended for times when you’re more active. Long-lasting bronchodilators can last up to 12 hours and are used every day.

The severity of your COPD will determine what type of bronchodilator is best for you.

If you have severe COPD, you may also need inhaled glucocorticosteroids. These are steroids that help minimize inflammation in your airways.


CHF can involve the use of several medications. Vasodilators help your heart by widening blood vessels and lowering blood pressure. This helps reduce the burden on your heart. Beta blockers can lower the heart rate and reduce the burden on the heart.

Other key medications include diuretics, which reduce the amount of fluid and sodium in your body. They can also help lower blood pressure.

A drug called digoxin strengthens heart contractions. It can be an important part of CHF treatment if other medications are not helpful, or if you have an abnormal heart rhythm like atrial fibrillation.

Anticoagulant medications may also be used to treat CHF. These medications can help reduce the risk of blood clots. For cases of severe CHF and COPD, oxygen therapy is often used. This therapy delivers oxygen to the lungs through a tube in the nose.

The main preventive measure to avoid COPD is to never smoke, or to stop smoking. Many products and therapies can help people quit smoking. Ask your doctor about these methods or look for programs in your community or at your local hospital.

Not smoking can also help preserve heart health. Other steps to help lower your risk of CHF include:

  • managing your blood pressure and cholesterol, either through medications or lifestyle changes
  • exercising most days of the week
  • eating a diet that’s low in saturated fats, added sugars, and sodium
  • eating a diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, and whole grains

Having regular checkups and following your doctor’s advice may also help prevent COPD, CHF, and other serious health problems.

COPD and CHF are serious conditions that affect your breathing and can affect your activity in life. Although both have similar symptoms and risk factors, COPD affects your lungs and CHF affects your heart.

Different medications are used to treat each condition. However, eating healthy, getting plenty of exercise, and quitting smoking are good treatments for both.