The Top 8 Respiratory Illnesses and Diseases

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Respiratory illness is a common problem in the United States. Millions of people suffer from genetic or environmentally developed respiratory conditions. Most often, smoking or infections are to blame. Learn more about the top respiratory conditions just in time for Respiratory Care Week, October 19 - 25, 2014.

1. Asthma

This chronic respiratory condition is caused by consistent inflammation of the airways. Symptoms include lung spasms with wheezing and shortness of breath. Things like allergies, infections and pollution can ignite an asthma attack. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood, around 25 million people suffer from asthma, 7 million of which are children. Asthma often begins in childhood, so any signs of asthma-like symptoms should be treated immediately. Symptoms that are left untreated can worsen and, in some cases, even be fatal. While there is no cure for this chronic respiratory condition, modern medicine has made living with asthma manageable.


According to the American Lung Association, this respiratory disease is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term that encompasses several respiratory illnesses that cause breathlessness or the inability to exhale normally. The COPD Foundation states that 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. It is estimated that over 24 million people currently have COPD but around half of them don’t know it. This respiratory disease is caused by smoking, genetics and environmental factors like pollution . The doctors at UnityPoint Health can help you manage your COPD and get back to your life.

3. Bronchitis

The respiratory disease of bronchitis is divided into chronic and acute bronchitis. Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD that is emphasized by a chronic cough. Acute bronchitis is an infection caused by a virus. In both cases, the mucous membrane in the lungs becomes inflamed in the bronchial passage. This causes swelling that shuts off the airways in the lungs. Both acute and chronic bronchitis require consistent medical treatment according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Acute bronchitis should subside after the infection is gone.

4. Emphysema

This serious respiratory disease is another form of COPD according to the American Lung Association. 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. 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.

5. Lung Cancer

This cancer is the leading cause of death for men and women in the United States. With the ability to develop in any part of the lungs, it is hard 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. According to LungCancer.Org, the mutation in the DNA can be caused by smoking, the normal aging process and inhaling asbestos fibers or radon gas. Symptoms can take years to appear, but include things like chronic coughing, changes in voice, harsh breathing sounds, coughing up blood and many others.

6. Cystic Fibrosis

This genetic respiratory disease is caused by a defective gene that creates thick and sticky mucus. This mucus causes repeated, and dangerous, lung infections as well as obstructions in the pancreas that prevent important enzymes from breaking down nutrients for the body. The Cystic Fibrosis Foundation states that this disease affects 30,000 people in the United States, 75% of which were diagnosed by the age of two. In the 1950s, few children who had cystic fibrosis lived long enough to attend elementary school. Thanks to modern medicine, the life expectancy of a child with this respiratory disease has doubled. Symptoms of cystic fibrosis include salty-tasting skin, chronic coughing, frequent lung infections and a poor growth rate in children.

7. Pneumonia

This lung disease is caused by an infection in the air sacs in the lungs. The infections can be caused by bacteria, a virus or a fungi. According to the American Lung Association, most people can recover in one to three weeks, but it can be life threatening. Symptoms, which include cough, fever, shaking chills and shortness of breath, can range from mild to severe. Suggested ways to prevent developing this respiratory condition include washing hands frequently, getting a flu shot or, for those at high-risk of pneumonia, receiving vaccinated.

8. Allergies

This condition is one of the most common chronic problems world-wide. Allergies occur when the immune system mistakes a common substance as an invader. The system overreacts and releases histamines, which cause the allergic reaction. The most common culprits of allergic reactions are pollen, dust, food, insect stings, animal dander, mold, medications and latex according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology. These reactions often affect the nose, lungs, throat and sinuses.

Common Culprit: Smoking. 

Cigarette smoking is either a cause or an exacerbator of every respiratory disease on this list. It is the leading cause of preventable illness and death and produces 443,000 deaths a year, around 49,000 of which are caused by secondhand smoke. According to the National Cancer Institute, 90% of the men and 80% of the women who died from lung cancer were smokers. Many of the respiratory conditions above require home oxygen systems, especially for those who smoke or have smoked. These and other services can be found at UnityPoint at Home Home Medical Equipment Services.