The most common respiratory diseases are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, cystic fibrosis, lung cancer, tuberculosis, bronchitis, and pneumonia.

Some respiratory diseases are acute, like an infection that will get better with treatment, while others are or become chronic and need to be managed.

This article will look at the seven most common respiratory diseases, their symptoms, diagnosis, and what causes them.

Verywell / Joules Garcia


Asthma

Asthma affects 25 million people in the United States. People with a family history of asthma, respiratory allergies, or severe childhood respiratory illness are at a higher risk of developing asthma.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease that causes breathing problems when the airways become narrowed by inflammation or blocked by mucus. The condition’s severity varies from person to person, but most people take daily preventive medication to control their symptoms and prevent flare-ups.

Symptoms

Asthma can have several symptoms, including:

  • Wheezing
  • Coughing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Shortness of breath

Diagnosis

Diagnosing asthma begins with taking a health history. If your healthcare provider suspects asthma, you may undergo a breathing test called spirometry. This test measures how much air you exhale and how fast you exhale.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term used to describe two primary types of obstructive lung disease that used to be classified separately: emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

  • Emphysema develops when the tiny air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) become damaged and less elastic. As these air sacs become damaged and die off, your lungs have fewer working parts to move oxygen from the air you breathe into your blood. This can lead to a lack of oxygen in the blood (hypoxia) and a buildup of toxic waste products. Smoking is a leading contributor to emphysema, but exposure to other pollutants and chemicals can also cause it. Age and obesity are also risk factors for emphysema.
  • Chronic bronchitis is a condition where the lining of the bronchial tubes becomes irritated and inflamed. The swelling can make it more difficult to breathe and cause an overproduction of mucus. With chronic bronchitis, the inflammation is caused by repeated exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke or pollution. Chronic bronchitis does not go away. You may have periods of relief along with periods where it gets worse (exacerbations), especially if you get a cold or another respiratory infection.

Nearly 15 million people have been diagnosed with COPD in the United States, and another 12 million are believed to have the disease but do not have an official diagnosis.

COPD is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. About eight in 10 cases are linked to exposure to cigarette smoke.

Symptoms

The symptoms of COPD vary based on which type you have. Common symptoms can include:

  • Frequent coughing
  • A cough that produces a lot of mucus
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath that gets worse with activity
  • A whistling or squeaking sound when you breathe
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Sensitivity to respiratory infections like colds or the flu
  • Weight loss
  • Weakness
  • Swelling in your legs and feet
  • A blue tinge to your lips or fingernails (cyanosis)

Diagnosis

To diagnose COPD, your healthcare provider will take your health history and conduct a health exam. If COPD is suspected, they may order lung function tests, such as:

  • Spirometry
  • Oximetry
  • Chest X-ray
  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Alpha-1 test

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition that affects about 35,000 people in the United States. It can cause both breathing and digestive problems because the disease makes the mucus in the body very thick.

While the disease can involve several organs, it tends to cause specific problems in the lungs, such as blockages from thick mucus that trap harmful bacteria and lead to infections.

Symptoms

Since cystic fibrosis can affect many parts of the body, a wide range of symptoms can develop, such as:

  • A cough that does not go away
  • A cough that produces thick mucus or blood
  • Wheezing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Frequent respiratory or sinus infections
  • Nasal polyps
  • Slow growth in childhood or poor weight gain
  • Constipation
  • Greasy or foul-smelling stools

Diagnosis

A diagnosis of CF is usually made early in life because newborns in the United States are screened for the disease. If a diagnosis is not made at birth, symptoms that occur in childhood can lead to the diagnosis later on.

Newborn screening looks for high levels of the enzyme immunoreactive trypsin. Cystic fibrosis can also be diagnosed with other tests such as:

  • Genetic testing
  • Sweat test
  • Nasal potential difference

Lung Cancer

Lung cancer is one of the most common types of cancer, ranking third in the United States with more than 218,000 people affected. It can develop as either small cell lung cancer or non-small cell lung cancer. The latter is the more common of the two.

Cigarette smoking—both direct and secondhand—is one of the biggest risk factors for lung cancer.

Symptoms

Lung cancer can develop gradually and often with no symptoms. When it does appear, symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain
  • Chronic cough
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Hoarseness
  • Weight loss
  • Fatigue or weakness
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • A cough that produces bloody mucus
  • Swelling in the face or neck

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider will note your symptoms and medical history, then order imaging tests, which may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Positron emission tomography (PET) scan

If something suspicious is found on imaging tests, you may need further testing to confirm the diagnosis. This may include:

  • Biopsy
  • Sputum cytology
  • Endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS)
  • Endoscopic esophageal ultrasound (EUS)
  • Mediastinoscopy/mediastinotomy
  • Thoracentesis

Tuberculosis

Tuberculosis is a bacterial lung disease caused by Mycobacterium tuberculosis. More than 1.8 billion people around the world have tuberculosis, but the disease is only considered active in 10 million of them.

People with strong immune systems sometimes carry an inactive form of the disease, called latent tuberculosis. In people with weaker immune systems, the bacteria attacks lung tissue. It can also spread and cause damage to other parts of the body.

Symptoms

Many respiratory diseases share symptoms, such as long-term cough. Certain symptoms are specific to one disease or another. For example, night sweats tend to occur in people with tuberculosis.

Other tuberculosis symptoms include:

  • A cough that lasts longer than three weeks
  • Weight loss
  • Poor appetite
  • A cough that brings up blood or mucus
  • Weakness
  • Fatigue
  • Fever
  • Night sweats

Diagnosis

Tuberculosis may be suspected if you’ve lived or recently traveled to a place where TB spreads. Your healthcare provider may also listen to your lungs and check to see if the lymph nodes in your neck are swollen. To confirm TB, your healthcare provider may order a skin or blood test.

If TB is confirmed, further testing may include:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Sputum test

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is a condition that develops when the windpipe (bronchial tube) gets irritated or inflamed. In response to the inflammation, the lining of the bronchial tube may make too much mucus as it tries to coat the area. The mucus can make it difficult to breathe.

Inflammation can also cause swelling of the airway. This will cause it to narrow and make it harder to breathe. In acute bronchitis, the inflammation is usually caused by an infection that will get better in a few days to several weeks.

Symptoms

Chronic bronchitis falls under the umbrella of COPD. Acute bronchitis is not considered COPD, but it shares symptoms with the chronic form of the disease. These symptoms include:

  • A frequent cough that produces mucus
  • Wheezing
  • A whistling or squeaking sound when you breathe
  • Shortness of breath (especially with activity)
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Fever (acute bronchitis only)

Diagnosis

Most of the time, acute bronchitis is diagnosed with a basic health exam. In some cases, a healthcare provider may want to order a chest X-ray to rule out pneumonia.

If your healthcare provider suspects a bacterial infection is causing your symptoms, they may order a sputum test.

Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a generic diagnosis. Even though there are different types of pneumonia, the way that the condition affects the lungs is similar in each one.

With pneumonia, a virus, bacteria, or another infectious agent causes the tiny air sacs in the lungs (alveoli) to fill with fluid or pus. These air sacs are what help exchange oxygen and other gases between the air that is breathed in and the blood. When these sacs are filled with fluid, the body’s ability to exchange gases is reduced.

The several types of pneumonia are:

  • Viral
  • Bacterial
  • Mycoplasma (also called “walking pneumonia”)
  • Fungal
  • Aspiration

Symptoms

In some types of pneumonia, such as walking pneumonia, the symptoms can be mild and not affect daily activities. However, the symptoms of pneumonia can be severe and, in some cases, will require hospitalization.

Common symptoms of pneumonia are:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • A cough that produces phlegm
  • Shortness of breath
  • Chest pain when you cough or breathe
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Diagnosis

Before diagnosing pneumonia, your healthcare provider will ask about your medical history, including places you may have traveled and any exposure to viruses you may have had. They will also listen to your lungs. If pneumonia is suspected, they may order tests such as:

  • Blood tests
  • Oximetry
  • Sputum test
  • Chest X-ray

People who are hospitalized with severe symptoms may need additional testing such as:

  • Computed tomography (CT) scan
  • Arterial blood gas test
  • Pleural fluid culture
  • Bronchoscopy

Summary

There are several types of lung diseases that can affect your breathing and cause chronic symptoms like cough. Many of these diseases share symptoms.

If you have a cough that won’t go away or you are experiencing frequent shortness of breath, call your healthcare provider. They can do testing to confirm what type of lung disease is causing your respiratory problems and may refer you to a doctor that specifically treats lung disease (pulmonologist).

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