Respiratory disorders, or lung diseases, are disorders such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, emphysema, lung cancer, mesothelioma, pulmonary hypertension, and tuberculosis. If left untreated, lung disease can produce health complications, problematic symptoms, and life-threatening conditions.
When you breathe, your lungs take in oxygen from the air and deliver it to the bloodstream. The cells in your body need oxygen to work and grow. During a normal day, you breathe nearly 29,000 times. People with lung disease have difficulty breathing. Millions of people in the U.S. have lung disease. If all types of lung disease are lumped together, it is the number three killer in the United States.
The term lung disease refers to many disorders affecting the lungs, such as asthma, COPD, infections like influenza, pneumonia and tuberculosis, lung cancer, and many other breathing problems. Some lung diseases can lead to respiratory failure.
Lung disease is the third-leading cause of death in the United States, and lung disease and other breathing problems are leading causes of death in infants. Patients also can play a major role in relieving symptoms of lung disease by understanding risk factors and taking actions to minimize their susceptibility to lung disease and its progression.
Respiratory disease is a medical term that encompasses pathological conditions affecting the organs and tissues that make gas exchange possible in higher organisms, and includes conditions of the upper respiratory tract, trachea, bronchi, bronchioles, alveoli, pleura and pleural cavity, and the nerves and muscles of breathing. Respiratory diseases range from mild and self-limiting, such as the common cold, to life-threatening entities like bacterial pneumonia, pulmonary embolism, and lung cancer.
In humans the anatomical features of the respiratory system include airways, lungs, and the respiratory muscles. Molecules of oxygen and carbon dioxide are passively exchanged, by diffusion, between the gaseous external environment and the blood. This exchange process occurs in the alveolar region of the lungs.
The respiratory system lies dormant in the human fetus during pregnancy. At birth, the respiratory system becomes fully functional upon exposure to air, although some lung development and growth continues throughout childhood. Pre-term birth can lead to infants with under-developed lungs. Smoking and air pollution are two common causes of respiratory problems.
- Obstructive conditions (e.g., emphysema, bronchitis, asthma attacks)
- Restrictive conditions (e.g., fibrosis, sarcoidosis, alveolar damage, pleural effusion)
- Vascular diseases (e.g., pulmonary edema, pulmonary embolism, pulmonary hypertension)
- Infectious, environmental and other “diseases” (e.g., pneumonia, tuberculosis, asbestosis, particulate pollutants): Coughing is of major importance, as it is the body’s main method to remove dust, mucus, saliva, and other debris from the lungs. Inability to cough can lead to infection. Deep breathing exercises may help keep finer structures of the lungs clear from particulate matter, etc.
The respiratory tract is constantly exposed to microbes due to the extensive surface area, which is why the respiratory system includes many mechanisms to defend itself and prevent pathogens from entering the body.
Depending on your respiratory condition, medications can include an assortment of inhalers, oral drugs and intravenous treatments. Your doctor should explain why specific medications are prescribed, and their potential benefits and side effects. Some examples include, by condition:
Asthma: Inhalers and nebulizers are key components of asthma treatment. Long-term asthma control medications include inhaled corticosteroids, leukotriene modulators (like Singulair) that prevent asthma symptoms, theophylline, and long-term beta agonists, or LABAs, that relax airway muscles (like Serevent). Combination inhalers include both a LABA and corticosteroid.
Quick-relief or rescue asthma medications provide rapid, short-term symptom relief during asthma flares. Albuterol and Atrovent are types of inhaled rescue drugs. Oral and IV steroids may be prescribed on a short-term basis to treat severe asthma symptoms.
COPD: A wide range of inhalers, nebulizers, oral medications and injections are used to treat COPD, depending on severity and symptoms. Clinicians use guidelines from the Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease, known as the GOLD guidelines, to prescribe COPD medications.
Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: Two oral medications are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: pirfenidone (Esbriet) and nintedanib (Ofev).
Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency: “Drugs are available where we functionally give people back alpha-1 antitrypsin,” Kuhn says. “And you’re actually able to augment their deficiency to some degree.” Augmentation therapy involves a weekly IV infusion, which some patients learn to manage at home.
Cystic fibrosis: In October, the FDA announced its approval of a three-drug combination called Trikafta as a breakthrough therapy for the genetic condition.
Smoking cessation: It’s critical for people with respiratory diseases to quit smoking and avoid further compromising their breathing. However, it can be difficult for long-term smokers, who may need medications and counseling to help them quit.
Supplemental oxygen: People with advanced COPD or pulmonary fibrosis may benefit from using supplemental oxygen to deliver enough oxygen to the body and help relieve their symptoms.