There are many different diseases of the respiratory tract, all of which make themselves felt through shortness of breath, coughing and decreased performance. Smoking and air pollution are the number one causes, but non-smokers in low-pollutant environments can also get sick. Some respiratory diseases are infections, others have an autoimmune cause, and science has not yet found the answers for some rare diseases.
What are respiratory diseases?
According to DigoPaul, respiratory diseases can affect the upper and lower airways and thus extend from the windpipe through the bronchial system to the pulmonary alveoli. Some subsequently also affect the blood supply to the lungs and lead to pulmonary hypertension. Respiratory diseases can therefore also be of different severity.
There is also a rough distinction between obstructive and restrictive respiratory diseases. Common complaints are coughing, phlegm, shortness of breath and decreased performance.
From the perspective of the underlying cause, it makes sense to distinguish obstructive from restrictive airway diseases. An obstruction refers to a narrowing or blockage of the airways, as it can be present, for example, in an asthma attack, in chronic bronchitis or an inwardly growing brochnial tumor.
In contrast, restrictive means that the elasticity of the lung tissue, the basis of every single breath, is reduced and thus less air can simply be drawn into the lungs. This problem occurs mainly with diseases of the lung tissue such as the pneumonia or pulmonary fibrosis.
Diseases such as pneumonia, which results in a combination of both problems, or pulmonary embolism, in which the blood supply to the lungs is cut off by a blood clot, are not included in this scheme. Strictly speaking, it is therefore more of a circulatory disease or an absolute emergency than a respiratory disease in the narrower sense.
Symptoms, ailments & signs
Respiratory diseases are very diverse and can therefore have very different symptoms. However, what all types of respiratory diseases have in common is that breathing is difficult. This can be due, for example, to increased mucus production, swelling of the airways, or pain in the airways. In most cases there is also a cough with different types of sputum.
Depending on the localization of the disease, different symptoms occur. For example, sinus infections are associated with constipation. It also secretes mucus. Sinus involvement can also cause pain.
Respiratory diseases in the throat and windpipe area, on the other hand, tend to be accompanied by a scratchy feeling and – occasionally – by severe pain. The latter are mostly due to the cough, which is more violent the more the airways are irritated. Involvement of the bronchi and lungs is generally associated with more severe symptoms than an infection of the upper respiratory tract.
In severe cases, there is shortness of breath and hoarseness, which can range up to temporary loss of voice. In most cases the breathing rhythm is disturbed. Respiratory diseases that are or become chronic can also permanently lead to reduced performance, as the oxygen supply to the body is not optimal. In severe cases, the heart and other organs can also be affected.
Shapes & types
The “classic example” of an obstructive airway disease is bronchial asthma: Here, mostly genetic, consists of an allergy to certain substances or an oversensitivity to cold air, stress or harmless infections, which leads to a narrowing of the smallest bronchial tubes.
Attack-like shortness of breath is the result. The problem is then not so much breathing – the diaphragm is initially strong enough to overcome the resistance – but rather breathing out the air. This is where asthmatics have the greatest trouble, the lungs overinflation and oxygen transport impaired as a result.
The same problem has the chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also called chronic bronchitis or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease). In the vast majority of cases, the cause is smoking. If the COPD affects a non-smoker, it is usually due to an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. This leads to a permanent disruption of the bronchial self-cleaning function, which leads to chronic coughing with slimy sputum and frequent infections.
In the long run, many people with COPD will have to be supplied with an oxygen cylinder at home at some point. Emergency sprays with bronchodilating agents and long-term therapy with glucocorticoid sprays to suppress the inflammation help both asthmatics and COPD people in the short term.
One of the restrictive respiratory diseases is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. In medicine, the word “idiopathic” always signals that no one knows the cause of this disease. However, fibrosis occurs, i.e. a thickening of the lung tissue, which makes the transport of oxygen through the walls of the alveoli extremely difficult, leads to a chronic irritable cough and, in the long term, causes high pressure in the pulmonary bloodstream. Suppression of the immune system with spray or tablets is often the only treatment option for this disease.
The possible complications of respiratory diseases depend on the clinical picture. Acute bronchitis usually proceeds without complications and heals completely within a few days to weeks. With a descending (descending) infection, there is a risk of pneumonia.
The most serious complications of pneumonia are acute progressive lung failure (ARDS) and blood poisoning (sepsis). Frequent recurrences of acute bronchitis can damage the bronchial mucosa and thus make the disease more chronic. Sudden worsening (exzerbation) is the most common complication of chronic bronchitis.
The increased secretion production can lead to a bacterial infection, which acutely aggravates the clinical picture. The transition from chronic to chronic obstructive bronchitis (COPD) is feared. If the infection descends into the alveoli, damage can occur that leads to emphysema. The obstruction also favors the development of right heart failure (cor pulmonale).
The greatest danger of COPD lies in the occurrence of acute excerbations, which result in a permanent loss of lung function. The most dangerous complication of bronchial asthma is the status asthmaticus. These are very frequent or long-lasting, severe attacks that are often life-threatening. As a consequence of bronchial asthma, pulmonary emphysema and right heart strain or right insufficiency can occur.
When should you go to the doctor?
Respiratory diseases are among the most common diseases. Parents should always consult a doctor for young children. The child’s immune system is not yet fully developed. The childhood respiratory disease can take a dramatic course with a high fever and wheezing. Here a quick and professional treatment has to take place. Some things that seem like respiratory problems can be caused by an object stuck in your nose.
In adults, colds with a cough and runny nose can initially be treated by yourself. Bed rest and inhalations are often a good remedy for cold-related symptoms in the respiratory organs. A visit to the doctor is only necessary if you have a more serious respiratory illness, for example due to a sick leave.
However, the situation is different with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or the onset of pneumonia. Visits to the doctor are essential here. Such diseases can be recognized by the more dramatic symptoms. If an initially normal respiratory disease worsens or does not improve in the usual time, a doctor must be urgently consulted.
Sometimes self-treatment doesn’t work. In this case, it must be investigated whether more suitable measures need to be taken. A delayed respiratory disease like the flu can have consequences like pleurisy or myocarditis. Asthma can also be caused by allergies. A pulmonologist or allergist may have to be called in here.
Treatment & Therapy
Associations with dust exposure in the city, in the country or at the workplace have been proven to be many other restrictive lung diseases, which are often named after their origin: There are black lung, farmer’s lung, quartz lung, cheese washer lung, winegrower’s lung and many more. Again, immunosuppression and, of course, switching off the triggering dust is the therapy of choice.
Pneumonia and acute bronchitis are the respiratory infections. Bronchitis takes place further up, is almost always viral and mainly leads to a dry and painful cough. In pneumonia, viruses and bacteria can be involved, so it can usually be treated specifically with antibiotics. In addition to the cough, which can also be productive, the main symptoms are fever, chills and sometimes shortness of breath. An X-ray can usually provide information. The flu and the common cold are also acute respiratory diseases.
The lung cancer, the most common cancer of the lung is counted strictly to the tumors and less to the respiratory disease. Nevertheless, it should be listed here, as it is mostly favored by inhaled toxins (smoking) and can cause the same symptoms as the respiratory diseases listed above.
Outlook & forecast
The prognosis for respiratory diseases is very different. There are many different respiratory diseases that can be chronic or acute. There are also those that can be traced back to direct damage to the airways and those that have pathological causes.
In general, it can be said that most acute respiratory diseases have a good prognosis. If an appropriate protective behavior is sought, infections in particular can heal quickly. Clean air and, if necessary, medication also accelerate this. This applies, for example, to acute bronchitis or a cold. Most people experience a mild form of chewing respiratory disease several times a year.
Chronic conditions, such as bronchial asthma or chronic bronchitis, however, have a different prognosis. In most cases it is to be expected that the condition of the person affected will not improve, but therapy will merely suppress the suffering symptomatically.
Accordingly, such respiratory diseases mean a permanent restriction. The extent to which life expectancy is reduced is also a question of the exact disease. A progressive disease (COPD, tuberculosis, etc.) means more therapy is required. In severe cases, a continuous deterioration of the condition can be expected. Damage to the tissue in the area of the airways also worsens the prognosis.
Finally, there are numerous allergies that directly affect the respiratory tract. These, too, will usually accompany the affected person for a lifetime and are usually not causally curable. Equipped with the right medication, however, a normal life is possible.
The first and foremost prevention of respiratory diseases is definitely not to smoke. The connection between cigarettes and lung cancer is now common knowledge, but that there are also other excruciating diseases such as COPD that are directly related to smoking is not known to most smokers and should increasingly become part of health education from a social perspective.
In addition, pollution in the workplace represents an enormous risk factor for many respiratory diseases. Prescribed breathing masks should therefore be worn, a company doctor should check that the employer is complying with protective measures and, in case of doubt, employees can also be consulted for advice.
If you have survived a respiratory disease, follow-up examinations are very important and important so that the disease does not break out again. If there was a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract, at least one follow-up examination should be carried out. Only with such a follow-up examination can further complications be excluded.
Even in the subsequent healing process, the respiratory disease can break out repeatedly. In particularly bad cases, infection can even occur again if this disease is not cured properly. However, if you decide to have at least one follow-up examination with a respiratory disease, you can count on a smooth healing process.
There should be no major complications, as long as the instructions of the respective doctor are followed. After surviving a respiratory tract disease, at least one follow-up examination should take place. Such an examination is the only way to avoid possible complications.
You can do that yourself
The possibilities for self-help with respiratory illnesses depend on the type of illness.
In the case of respiratory diseases caused by infections, sufficient amounts of water to drink and the supply of mucus-forming substances help to cough up the pathogens and thus remove them from the body. Chamomile, eucalyptus oil and spicy foods are considered to be mucus-forming.
Gargling with warm salt water can also help build up mucus in the throat. This salt water can also be used for nasal showers, which have a supportive effect in this area.
Coughs that result from respiratory problems can be quenched by sucking throat lozenges if necessary. In addition, these candies are also available with various active ingredients that can be antibacterial, anticonvulsant, pain relieving and much more. Also, steam baths and inhalation of essential oils and medicinal plants in hot water help to stimulate the respiratory system to calm down and mucus production.
With respiratory diseases that are chronic or result from damage to the airways, relaxation measures and, if necessary, pain relief from the outside through warm compresses and the like also help.
It is particularly important that substances that can further irritate and weaken the respiratory system are avoided. Avoid cigarette smoke, dust and chemical fumes. If necessary, simple breathing masks can be used to protect a diseased airway system. Controlled and relaxed breathing is still important and should be practiced.