Millions of Americans suffer from chronic lung diseases, and they are some of the leading causes of disease-related death. Lung diseases can affect different parts of your lungs and respiratory system, causing problems like shortness of breath, chest pain, chronic coughing and wheezing. If any area of the respiratory system is diseased, it may be hard to breathe in and breathe out. A chronic lung disease often develops over an extended period of time, and gets worse as the disease progresses. These illnesses may occur because of smoking, genetic (inherited) conditions, or exposure to pollutants like second-hand smoke or other types of inhaled chemicals.

What Are the Types of Chronic Lung Disease?

Chronic lung diseases can affect your entire respiratory system, including the blood vessels and muscles that allow you to breathe. Some types of disease, like chronic asthma or bronchitis, cause problems with the airways that carry oxygen into your lungs and release carbon dioxide out of your lungs. Other types of lung disease may involve inflammation or scarring of lung tissue, which make it difficult to take a deep breath. Lung diseases can also affect the ability of your lungs to circulate oxygen and blood throughout your respiratory system and to your heart.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a term used to describe progressive lung diseases, including emphysema, chronic bronchitis and non-reversible asthma. The most common symptoms are shortness of breath, wheezing and chronic coughing with mucus. COPD is often caused by long-term exposure to cigarette smoke or environmental pollutants, but can also be caused by genetic factors. While COPD cannot be cured, inhalers and steroids may be used to minimize further damage.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) is a progressive and irreversible form of lung disease that results in fibrosis, or scarring, of lung tissue for an unknown reason. Over time, the scarring worsens, typically causing breathlessness and chronic cough. While the exact cause is unknown, risk factors include cigarette smoking, genetics, being male and being age 50 or older. There is currently no cure for IPF or treatments that can remove the scarring from the lungs. There are, however, medications and therapies to help alleviate symptoms.

Cystic Fibrosis (CF)

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic (inherited) disorder in which a defective gene causes a thick, sticky buildup of mucus in the lungs (as well as other organs), causing wheezing or shortness of breath, chronic cough and frequent lung infections, such as bronchitis or pneumonia. CF may ultimately lead to extensive lung damage and respiratory failure. While there is no cure for CF, people with CF are living longer lives due to research and advancements in care.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (IPAH)

Idiopathic pulmonary arterial hypertension (IPAH), formerly known as primary pulmonary artery hypertension, is a rare lung disorder characterized by high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries (arteries that carry blood from the right side of the heart to the lungs). The condition results in the thickening and narrowing of tiny arteries in the lungs, which reduces blood flow and raises blood pressure in the lungs. Initially, symptoms may not be present, but as the condition progresses, symptoms may include tiredness, shortness of breath, chest pain, heart palpitations, fainting, dizziness and swelling in the legs. IPAH occurs spontaneously and has no known cause, although the disease occurs more often in women of childbearing age than men. Other risk factors include family history of the disease, other conditions, such as lupus, scleroderma, cirrhosis, HIV, and the use of methamphetamines and cocaine. There is no known cure; the goal of treatment is to minimize symptoms and slow the progression of the condition.

Alpha 1-Antitrypsin Deficiency (Alpha-1)

Alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency (Alpha-1) is a genetic (inherited) condition that may result in serious lung disease in adults. Respiratory-related symptoms may include shortness of breath, wheezing, chronic bronchitis, exercise intolerance, chronic allergies and bronchiectasis (chronic condition where the walls of the airways, or bronchi, are thickened from inflammation and infection). Patients with Alpha 1 lung disease are treated with augmentation therapy which is an intravenous infusion of alpha-1 antitrypsin protein (AAT) from the blood plasma of healthy human donors. The goal of therapy is to stop or slow the progression of lung destruction.

Other Conditions

Other conditions leading to chronic lung disease can include the replacement of previously transplanted lungs that have since failed, or bronchiectasis or sarcoidosis (the growth of tiny collections of inflammatory cells in different parts of the body), which adversely affect the lungs.

What Are the Causes of Chronic Lung Disease?

Chronic lung diseases can originate from different sources. Diseases often develop from smoking, exposure to pollutants or other chemicals, or they may be caused by infections or genetic disorders. Sometimes the cause is not known.

The causes of chronic lung diseases include:

  • Smoking, including cigarettes, pipes, cigars and e-cigarettes
  • Exposure to pollutants like second-hand smoke, air pollution or other inhaled chemicals
  • Genetic defects or deficiencies
  • Bacterial or viral infections

What Are the Symptoms of Chronic Lung Disease?

Sometimes the symptoms of chronic lung diseases go unnoticed. You may think that mild symptoms, like periodic shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, are not urgent or are just part of growing older. These symptoms may actually be signs of lung disease. It is important to watch for changes and see your doctor if you notice some of these common signs.

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Difficulty breathing while exercising
  • Coughing that lasts more than one month
  • Coughing up blood or large amounts of mucus
  • Chest pain that lasts for more than one month, or that gets worse with inhaling or coughing

What Are the Risk Factors of Chronic Lung Disease? How Can Chronic Lung Disease Be Prevented? How Can You Prevent Complications of Existing Lung Disease?

One of the biggest risk factors for chronic lung diseases is smoking. Other things that put you at a greater risk of developing a lung disease are obesity, lack of exercise, exposure to air pollutants and chemicals, and genetic conditions.

To help prevent worsening of symptoms or lung disease, you can take these important steps:

  • Don’t smoke. If you are already a smoker, it is time to quit. No matter how long you have smoked, quitting will help improve your lung health.
  • Exercise regularly.
  • Avoid exposure to indoor air pollution in both your home and workplace. This includes second-hand smoke and chemicals like radon.
  • Reduce exposure to outdoor air pollution. This includes avoiding outdoor exercise on days when air quality is labeled unhealthy.
  • Protect yourself from infections, especially during the cold and flu season. Wash your hands regularly and get vaccinated for the flu each year.

How Are Chronic Lung Diseases Diagnosed?

If you suspect you have a lung condition, it is important to see your doctor quickly. There are several ways your doctor can evaluate your symptoms to determine if you are suffering from a chronic lung disease. After a physical examination and a discussion of your symptoms and medical history, your doctor may recommend some of the following testing options:

  • Imaging tests, including a chest X-ray or CT scan
  • Open lung biopsy
  • Pulmonary function tests, including spirometry or oximetry
  • Arterial blood gas test to measure the amount of oxygen in your blood
  • Bronchoscopy or biopsy to remove and analyze small amounts of lung tissue

Early detection can help with successful treatment and management of chronic lung diseases. The affiliated physicians and specialists at Memorial Hermann are experienced in identifying the signs of lung disease, and can develop a plan of treatment that is appropriate for your specific condition.

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