Respiratory illness is a common problem in the United States. Many times, people are genetically more likely to get respiratory conditions, but your work place or environmental exposures could also play a big role. One thing is for sure, smoking is the most common cause of respiratory disease.
Acute Sinusitis and Pharyngitis
These terms are referred to infections of the nose and throat. The infections may be viral (like the flu virus) or bacterial in origin. Other areas typically affected and also included as respiratory diseases are acute otitis (infection of the ears) and acute laryngitis (infections of the vocal cords causing voice loss). All these are very common medical problems, and are extremely prevalent during the fall and winter seasons. They are usually very easy to treat with the appropriate antibiotic or antiviral therapy.
Asthma is defined as a common, chronic respiratory condition that causes difficulty breathing due to inflammation of the airways. Asthma symptoms include dry cough, wheezing, chest tightness and shortness of breath. Dr. Meyer says there is a major connection between environmental allergies and asthma. Allergic reactions, infections and pollution can all trigger an asthma attack.
“Those with persistent asthma often notice a better quality of life with the help of anti-inflammatory medication,” Dr. Meyer says. “Everyone who has asthma needs to have a rescue inhaler to open airways quickly.”
Usually, asthma starts in childhood years and progresses into adulthood. However, some people in their 60s, 70s and 80s can get adult onset asthma. Dr. Meyer says asthma is a reversible obstructive lung disease. He’s seen asthma patients who are able to improve their breathing flow rates better than those who have the respiratory disease known as COPD.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term that encompasses several respiratory illnesses that cause breathlessness, or the inability to exhale normally. People usually experience symptoms, including shortness of breath, and normally cough up sputum (mucus from the lungs), especially in the morning. COPD can be tricky for some people to identify, because symptoms are often mistaken for the gradual aging process and body deterioration. In fact, COPD can develop over the course of several years without any signs of shortness of breath. For that reason, Dr. Meyer says COPD often goes undetected for far too long. He says the disease usually begins while people are in their 30s or 40s and then peaks during their 50s, 60s and 70s.
“This disease is generally associated with cigarette smoking. It’s rare to see people with COPD who haven’t been exposed to some sort of smoking. People can experience varying severity levels of COPD. At its most severe, it can cause people difficulty doing every day activities,” Dr. Meyer says.
Treatment includes smoking cessation, bronchodilator therapy (medication that opens the airways) and pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a supervised exercise program for people with COPD. Unlike asthma, COPD is not reversible. According to the American Lung Association, COPD is the third leading cause of death in the U.S. Dr. Meyer identifies COPD as one of the most serious and dangerous respiratory illnesses, and COPD is the number one problem seen in most pulmonology offices.
“It’s a very serious disease. Once you get COPD, you’ve got it. It’s a disease that continues to worsen, even with smoking cessation,” Dr. Meyer says.
Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD emphasized by a chronic cough. Usually people cough up sputum (mucus from the lungs), especially in the morning. Dr. Meyer says this happens because mucus glands in the airways increase output, and patients have to cough that extra secretion out. Since chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD, it’s treated the same way. People can also develop acute bronchitis, which is not a long-term disease but rather an infectious problem. It develops from a viral or bacterial infection and can be treated with antibiotics. Symptoms associated with acute bronchitis will subside once the infection has resolved.
Emphysema is a serious respiratory disease, which is another form of COPD. The most common cause is smoking. Those who suffer from emphysema have trouble exhaling air from their lungs. Cigarette smoke damages the air sacs in the lungs to a point where they can no longer repair themselves. Dr. Meyer says this respiratory system illness most commonly leads to respiratory failure and the need for extra oxygen to meet breathing needs. Emphysema evolves slowly over the years, and there is no cure; however, those who quit smoking are more likely to see the disease’s progression slow.
With the ability to develop in any part of the lungs, this cancer is difficult to detect. Most often, the cancer develops in the main part of the lungs near the air sacs. DNA mutations in the lungs cause irregular cells to multiply and create an uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells, or a tumor. These tumors interfere with the regular functions of the lungs.
“Far and away the most common risk factor for lung cancer is cigarette smoke. Other risk factors include radon exposure, workplace exposure, including asbestos and diesel fumes, secondhand smoke, air pollution and radiation exposure from frequent CT scans of the chest,” Dr. Meyer says.
Symptoms can take years to appear, but include things like chronic coughing, changes in voice, harsh breathing sounds and coughing up blood. According to the American Cancer Society, lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the U.S.