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Understanding Chronic Breathing Disorders

Thursday 21 May 2020
Chronic Lung Disorders

Table of Contents


I. What are Chronic Lung disorders?

II. Risk factors for Breathing Disorders

III. Lung Diseases that Affect the Airway

IV. Lung Diseases Affecting the Air Sacs

V. Lung Diseases Affecting the Pleura

VI. Lung Diseases Affecting the Chest Wall

VII. Treatments for Chronic Lung Disorders


What are Chronic Lung Disorders?

Lung problems affect tens of millions of people all over the world. The lungs are complex organs that have to expand and relax thousands of times a day to keep the body's oxygen pumping. If there is any hiccup in this complex system, then lung diseases may occur. Lung issues can have a significant impact on everyday life and may cause chronic breathing problems. [1] 

Chronic lung disorders are diseases of the airways and other structures of the lung. There are several different types of lung disease, and they can occur due to external factors, genetics, or as a result of pre-existing health conditions. Chronic lung disorders are not curable and need to be maintained with proper medications, like Ventolin or Advair HFA. Read on to learn more about conditions that can cause breathing problems. [2] 

Risk Factors for Breathing Disorders

There are many reasons why a person may develop chronic lung disorders. Several environmental factors can affect your lung function, especially if you live in a highly polluted area or work specific jobs. Major risk factors for lung issues can include:

  • Tobacco smoke
  • Second-hand tobacco smoke
  • Occupational agents (gases, fumes, or smoke)
  • Allergens
  • Outdoor air pollutants
  • Indoor air pollutants

In low and middle-income countries, those who spend a large portion of their life in an urban setting tend to have a higher risk of developing chronic lung disease than those in less urbanized environments. Indoor pollutants can occur in rural areas where solid fuels are used for cooking and heating the home. Diet and nutrition also play a significant role. If you do not maintain a healthy diet and have a high BMI (body mass index), you are at a higher risk of developing chronic lung disease. [3]

a factory with billowing smoke 

Lung Diseases that Affect the Airway

Diseases of the airway are some of the most common lung disorders. The airway is made up of the trachea (windpipe), which branches into bronchi tubes. These tubes become smaller throughout the lungs and divide into even smaller air passages called bronchioles. Bronchioles are where oxygen is transferred from the inhaled air to the blood. [4] Some of the most common diseases that affect the airway include:

Asthma: Asthma is a chronic breathing condition that involves an inflammation of the airways. This causes the airways to narrow and makes breathing difficult. Symptoms of asthma can include chest tightness, shortness of breath, and wheezing. Over 25 million Americans have asthma, and it can be deadly if left untreated. The exact cause of asthma is unknown, but it is often genetic or triggered by animal dander, certain foods, or seasonal allergies. Long-term and emergency inhalers are often prescribed for this condition. [5] 

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is a long-term condition that makes it difficult to breathe. Emphysema and chronic bronchitis both fall under the category of COPD. COPD is caused by exposure to particles that irritate the lungs. Smoking and tobacco use are the most common causes of COPD. You are also more likely to develop COPD if you already have asthma. [6] 

a cartoon displaying the differences between an asthmatic and normal airway

Cystic fibrosis (CF): Cystic fibrosis is an inherited disorder that severely damages the lungs, digestive system, and other organs. The defective CF gene causes cells to produce excess mucus, which plugs up tubes, ducts, and passageways in the lungs and pancreas. Symptoms of CF include wheezing, exercise intolerance, repeated lung infections, and inflamed nasal passageways. [7]

Lung Diseases Affecting the Air Sacs

The air sacs at the end of bronchioles are called alveoli. Alveoli make up the bulk of the lung tissue. Many conditions can occur if the alveoli are not functioning correctly.

Pulmonary edema: This condition occurs when fluid leaks out of the blood vessels of the lungs. This fluid gets into the air sacs and makes it difficult to breathe. Pulmonary edema is typically caused by heart failure and pressure in the lung's blood vessels. [1] 

Pneumoconiosis: This condition is a result of inhaling certain types of hazardous dust. Black lung disease, also known as coal miner's lung, is one common form. Breathing in harmful substances like coal dust, cotton, or other fibers can get in the lung and form scar tissue. In more severe cases, pneumoconiosis can cause damage to the blood vessels and air sacs in the lungs. [8] 

Pneumonia and tuberculosis: Pneumonia is an infection of the alveoli and is caused by a virus or bacteria. This results in the air sacs filling with pus and becoming solid, which can affect breathing in one or both lungs. Tuberculosis is a form of pneumonia that slowly gets worse. [1]

doctors performing a lung surgery 

Lung Diseases Affecting the Pleura

The pleura is the lining that surrounds the lungs and the inside of the chest wall. There is a small layer of fluid between the pleura and the chest wall. This allows the pleura on your lungs to slide along the chest wall with each breath. Many issues can occur if this system isn't functioning correctly. These issues can include:

Mesothelioma: Mesothelioma occurs when cancer forms on the membrane that lines the inside of the body's cavities. Mesothelioma is a chronic condition because it often occurs several years before it is diagnosed. Most patients with this cancer typically die as a result of respiratory failure or pneumonia. [9] 

Pleural effusion: This condition occurs when fluid collects between the lung and chest wall. Infections, autoimmune conditions, heart or kidney disease, can lead to pleural effusion. Symptoms of pleural effusion can include shortness of breath, chest pain, fever, and cough. [10]

Lung Diseases Affecting the Chest Wall

If the chest wall is affected by hereditary or lifestyle choices, your breathing may be impacted. The chest wall is integral in your breathing function and is made possible through a connection of ribs that help each other expand and relax. [1]

Obesity hypoventilation syndrome (OHS): This disorder affects obese people who have excess weight upon their chests. This disorder results in low oxygen levels and too much carbon dioxide in the blood. This combination can lead to hypoventilation, which means that air is not moving correctly in and out of the lungs. OHS can also lead to problems sleeping and eventually, sleep apnea. Symptoms of OHS include lack of energy, breathlessness, and daytime sleepiness. At night you may experience loud snoring and breathing pauses. [11]

Treatments for Chronic Lung Disorders

The goal of treatment for lung disorders involves restoring breathing function and improving everyday life. Bronchodilators are a common form of treatment. Bronchodilators help treat spasms in the smooth muscle in the walls of the airways. Ventolin, also known as salbutamol, is a bronchodilator used to control symptoms of asthma. [12]

a person receiving oxygen through a mask in a bariatric chamber 

If you have COPD along with asthma, your doctor may prescribe Advair HFA or Symbicort to prevent flare-ups. Advair is a combination treatment that involves a steroid and long-acting beta-agonist, which helps improve lung function and reduce asthma symptoms. This medication helps prevent inflammation of the airways to improve breathing. For more severe lung disorders, you may have to receive supplemental oxygen therapy or possibly a lung transplant if your breathing is severely affected. [13]

The content in this article is intended for informational purposes only. This website does not provide medical advice. In all circumstances, you should always seek the advice of your physician and/or other qualified health professionals(s) for drug, medical condition, or treatment advice. The content provided on this website is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.