Lung Diseases

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Lung disease refers to disorders that affect the lungs, the organs that allow us to breathe. Lung diseases may range from common infections such as influenza to potentially life-threatening diseases like lung cancer.

If you are worried that you or a loved one might be suffering from a lung disease, this section provides you with up-to-date information to help you learn more about lung diseases and better lung health.

Some common types of lung diseases are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, infections such as influenza and pneumonia, lung cancer, and many other breathing problems. Look out for the symptoms associated with lung diseases, and find out about a range of tests used to diagnose lung diseases.

Because cigarette smoke plays such a big part in lung diseases, this section also gives an overview of the causes of lung problems, and empowers you with steps you can take to prevent lung disease. 

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Many people overlook the early signs of lung disease. Often, one of the first symptoms is not having your usual level of energy.

The signs and symptoms can differ depending on the type of lung disease. Common signs are:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Shortness of breath, especially during physical activity
  • Chest tightness that feels like you're not getting enough air
  • Decreased ability to exercise
  • A cough that doesn’t go away or gets worse
  • Coughing up blood or mucus
  • Pain or discomfort when breathing in or out
  • Hoarseness or wheezing
  • Symptoms of lung cancer can also cause a loss of appetite or unexplained weight loss. If you have any of the symptoms above, it is important to talk to your doctor. Your doctor will ask about your medical history, smoking history, as well as your exposure to harmful substances. He or she will also do a physical exam and may suggest some further tests to find out the cause of your problems.
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Lung disease refers to disorders that affect the lungs, the organs that allow us to breathe. Some common examples of lung disease are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, infections such as influenza and pneumonia, lung cancer, and many other breathing problems. Breathing problems caused by lung disease may prevent the body from getting enough oxygen.

According to the University of Maryland Medical Center , there are three main categories of lung disease – airway diseases, lung tissue diseases and lung circulation diseases. Many lung diseases involve a combination of these three types.

  • Airway diseases: These diseases affect the tubes that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs, and usually cause a narrowing or blockage of such airways. They include asthma, emphysema and chronic bronchitis. People with airway diseases often experience shortness of breath, and have particular difficulty with breathing out.
  • Lung tissue diseases: Lung tissue diseases affect the structure of the lung tissue. Scarring or inflammation of the tissue makes the lungs unable to expand fully, which creates difficulty for the lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. People with this type of lung disorder often feel tightness in the chest that doesn't allow them to breathe deeply. Pulmonary fibrosis and pneumonia are examples of lung tissue diseases.
  • Lung circulation diseases: These diseases affect the blood vessels in the lungs. They are caused by clotting, scarring, or inflammation of the blood vessels and affect respiratory function. Pulmonary hypertension, a type of high blood pressure that affects the arteries in the lungs and the right side of your heart, is an example of lung circulation diseases.

Causes of Lung Diseases

While experts don't know the causes of all types of lung disease, they are aware of some. These include:

  • Smoking: Smoke from cigarettes is the number one cause of lung disease. If you are a smoker or are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, you have an increased risk of lung disease.
  • Air pollution: Recent studies suggest that some air pollutants like car exhaust may contribute to lung diseases such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.
  • Asbestos: This is natural mineral fiber that is used in insulation, fireproofing materials, car brakes, and other products. Asbestos can give off small fibers that are too small to be seen and can be inhaled. Asbestos harms lung cells, causing lung scarring and lung cancer.
  • Germs: Some diseases that affect the lungs, like the flu, are caused by germs such as bacteria, viruses, and fungi.
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There are many different types of lung disease. Some of the most common types are:

  • Asthma: Asthma is a chronic disease where the airways of the lungs become inflamed and oversensitive. The airways overreact to triggers like smoke, air pollution or mold, and cause wheezing and shortness of breath. For more information, see Asthma and Allergies.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD is not one single disease but an umbrella term used to describe chronic lung diseases that limit airflow into and out of the lungs and make breathing difficult. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema are the 2 most common conditions that make up COPD. Chronic bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of your bronchial tubes, which carry air to and from your lungs. In emphysema, the lung tissue gets weak, and the walls of the air sacs (alveoli) break down. These conditions often occur together. The main symptoms of COPD are a long-lasting cough, coughing up mucus, and being short of breath.
  • Influenza (the flu): Flu is a respiratory infection that is caused by a virus and can damage the lungs. People often recover well from the flu, but it can be dangerous for some. Those at greater risk include the elderly, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions like asthma.
  • Pneumonia:  Pneumonia is a severe inflammation of the lungs that can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Fluid builds up in the lungs and may lower the amount of oxygen that the blood can get from air that's breathed in. The most common symptoms of pneumonia are coughing, fever, shaking chills and shortness of breath. People most at risk are infants, the elderly and those who have existing health problems.
  • Tuberculosis: Tuberculosis is a disease caused by bacteria called Mycobacterium tuberculosis. The bacteria usually infect the lungs, but they can also damage other parts of the body, including the kidneys, spine and brain. The main tuberculosis symptoms are a bad cough, fever, losing weight and feeling weak.
  • Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease primarily affecting the lungs and digestive system. A build-up of thick mucus occurs in the lungs, which causes increasingly severe respiratory problems. It may be difficult to clear bacteria from the lungs, leading to repeated lung infections.
  • Lung cancer: Lung cancer is a life-threatening disease in which abnormal lung cells multiply and grow without control. These cancerous cells can invade nearby tissues, as well as spread to other parts of the body. Lung cancer has many forms, and may develop in any part of the lungs. The type, location, and spread of lung cancer determines the treatment options. For comprehensive information about this topic, see Lung Cancer
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The tests used to diagnose lung disease depend on what your doctor suspects you might have. Some common tests include:

  • Spirometry: For this test, you will be asked to take a deep breath and blow as hard as you can into a tube that is connected to a spirometer. This machine measures how much air you can breathe in and out, as well as how fast you can blow out air. Spirometry is a common test used to check for asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
  • Chest x-ray: Chest x-rays create pictures of the heart and lungs. The pictures can show signs of COPD, can allow doctors to locate abnormal growths in the lungs and can sometimes determine whether anther condition is causing your symptoms. Chest x-rays may also be used to confirm the presence of pneumonia and determine the extent and location of the infection.
  • Computed tomography (CT) scans: Your doctor may also recommend CT scans as they are a more powerful type of imaging test than standard x-rays. The images, for example, can show subtle signs of lung cancer that don't show up on x-rays.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests may be conducted to confirm the presence of infection and to try to identify the type of organism causing the infection.
  • Sputum test: If an infection is suspected, a sample of fluid from yours lungs (sputum) is taken after a deep cough, and analysed to pinpoint the type of infection. Your sputum may also be studied to see if it has cancer cells in it.
  • Branchoscopy: In this procedure, a thin, flexible tube with a camera is inserted down your throat and into the lungs to check whether something is blocking the airways. Your doctor may also remove small bits of tissue to test for lung cancer. 
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Luckily, there are many things you can do to keep your lungs healthy for life. Some steps you can take to reduce your risk of lung disease include:

  • Not smoking: According to the Canadian Lung Association , this is the single most important thing you can do to keep your lungs healthy and prevent disease. Smoking damages your lungs and increases your risk for a number of diseases, including lung cancer. If you’re a smoker, talk to your doctor about getting the help you need to quit.
  • Avoid second-hand smoke: Exposure to second-hand smoke puts you at risk for the same diseases that affect smokers. Ask guests to smoke outdoors and seek out smoke-free restaurants and hotels.
  • Avoid exposure to toxic chemicals at work: Take precautions to protect yourself from breathing in fumes from chemicals, solvents and paints in the workplace. Be sure to follow any proper safety procedures, such as wearing a face mask, if required.
  • Reduce your exposure to indoor air pollution: Simple household tips, such as turning on the exhaust fan when cooking and avoiding aerosol products, can help reduce your exposure to indoor pollution and keep your lungs healthy.
  • Fight off germs: Washing your hands regularly and covering your coughs and sneezes can help to prevent infectious diseases, such as the flu.
  • Be physically active: Regular exercise will help to keep your lungs healthy and is good for your overall health. Strengthening the muscles around your rib cage and diaphragm helps ventilate the lungs by pulling open the chest cage and sucking in oxygen. This in turn keeps your lung muscles toned and healthy. Health experts recommend moderate exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes each session.
  • Include lots of fruit and vegetables in your diet: Research suggests that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables over a long period of time can help prevent lung diseases.
  • Practice deep breathing: When you breathe too quickly, as most people who lead a busy lifestyle do, you only draw breath from the upper and middle lobes of the lung - rather than using them all. Not using the whole of the lung leaves the lower lobes open to infection by allowing germs or bacteria to breed where it is warm and moist. Deep breathing involves inhaling deeply through your nostrils, drawing oxygen into all sections of your lungs, and using your diaphragm to its full capacity. Practice at least 15 minutes of deep breathing 2 to 3 times a week. 
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