A man coughing into his hand.

6 Signs of Lung Disease You Shouldn’t Ignore

Understanding Lung Disease Symptoms

Do you easily get out of breath after minimal exertion? Do you sometimes find it hard to breathe for no reason? Do you have a chronic cough that has lasted for over one month? While some may write off these symptoms as a normal part of aging, they can also be the first signs of a lung disease and the need for a medical checkup.

Around 15 million Americans suffer from lung disease. It is most common in seniors but often remains undiagnosed and untreated, causing unnecessary limitation of activity and eventually affecting overall health and well-being.

In this article we will look at different types of lung disease, lung disease symptoms, how it is diagnosed and treated, and what you can do to avoid lung disease or reduce its long-term effects.

What Is Lung Disease?

The term lung disease is a broad one which refers to any disorder that affects the exchange of gases in the lungs. When we breathe in, oxygen in the air is transported via the bronchial tubes to hundreds and millions of small sacs called alveoli.

From the alveoli, which are surrounded by tiny blood capillaries, life-sustaining oxygen is transferred into the bloodstream. At the same time carbon dioxide (the waste product left over after oxygen is used for energy) is transferred from the blood into the alveoli. Then, we breathe it out.

There are many different types of lung diseases with a variety of causes. The main causes are smoking, exposure to pollutants and irritants, infections, and genetic factors related to the immune system.

Common Lung Diseases

The most common lung diseases are the acute viral or bacterial infections which most of us have suffered from at some stage of our lives.

Complications from these infections can sometimes cause permanent lung damage leading to chronic lung disease. At the same time, those who suffer from chronic lung disease are at greater risk of severe complications from infections such as influenza and COVID-19.

The most common chronic lung diseases are:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). This can either be chronic bronchitis where the bronchial tubes become partially blocked, or emphysema which involves a collapse of a large number of the alveoli.
  • Asthma. This is an overreaction of the immune system to pollutants, allergens, or even exercise or cold air. These can cause the bronchial tubes to narrow.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis. This is where parts of the lung are damaged, causing scarring and stiffness of lung tissue. This can be from exposure to pollutants, chemicals and other substances such as asbestos, coal and silica dust.

Lung cancer can also be a form of lung disease, though COPD is the most widespread lung disease in the elderly, causing around 120,000 deaths every year in the U.S. It develops gradually over many years, which is why symptoms are often ignored as a normal part of aging until the condition has reached an advanced stage.

Symptoms of Lung Disease

The two most common symptoms of lung disease are shortness of breath and a persistent cough. The shortness of breath happens with little or no exercise, or when breathing takes longer than usual to return to normal after exertion. A persistent cough is a cough that does not go away after about a month, whether it is a dry cough or one that produces mucus.

Furthermore, more serious symptoms of lung disease include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing
  • Chest pain or discomfort while breathing
  • Mucus with traces of blood
  • Waking up from shortness of breath
  • A blue or gray tinge to the lips and fingernails

Visit your medical practitioner for a proper investigation and diagnosis if you experience any of these symptoms. Note also that some of the above symptoms can be associated with chronic heart disease or certain blood pressure medications.

Diagnosing Lung Disease

A medical practitioner can often accurately diagnose a lung infection by taking a history of your symptoms and listening to breath sounds with their stethoscope. An x-ray might be used to confirm the diagnosis initially or during a follow-up visit if the prescribed course of treatment did not clear up the infection. The latter might indicate a complication or another underlying problem.

A CT scan or chest MRI might be ordered to determine more precisely how and where your lungs are affected. You doctor can also order various laboratory investigations via a blood sample or a small sample of lung tissue or fluid obtained by inserting a needle into the chest cavity.

Furthermore, you can be sent for a lung function test to assess how well your lungs are working. For this test you will need to blow hard into a tube to measure the total capacity of your lungs and the amount of air that flows through your lungs when you breathe. A lung function test is also often part of a regular physical exam, as it can detect COPD and other chronic lung disorders even before symptoms become severe.

Lung Disease Treatments

Treatment will obviously depend on the cause and severity of the disease. Medication that might be prescribed for lung diseases includes:

  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Bronchodilators which open the air passages by relaxing the smooth muscles around the airways
  • Steroids that reduce inflammation and swelling in the airways

Physical therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation can make a big difference for those who develop complications from an infection or those with chronic lung disease. They can help improve your breathing with exercises that enhance lung function, relaxation exercises, an appropriate fitness plan, and tips on how to conserve your energy while performing activities of daily living.

Oxygen therapy might be necessary for severe lung disease to supply the body with higher levels of oxygen. Oxygen is supplied through nasal prongs or a mask from either a portable oxygen tank or a machine for home.

How to Keep Your Lungs Healthy

As with most other chronic diseases, you can prevent lung disease through a healthy lifestyle. The first and most obvious is to not smoke. Smoking is a major cause of COPD, lung cancer and complications from common infections. Excess weight makes it more difficult to breathe, which is another reason to eat a healthy diet and shed those extra pounds. We generally associate exercise with muscular fitness and a stronger heart. Exercise also reduces the decline in lung function because it makes us breathe deeper and it makes us use our diaphragm to get enough oxygen to our muscles. Even light exercise increases the amount of oxygen in the blood.

When we are sedentary we tend to take shallower breaths and not use our diaphragm. Stale air becomes trapped in our lungs and the muscles used for breathing lose their suppleness. You can counteract these effects with specific breathing exercises. Practice regular deep breathing from your belly or try pursed-lip breathing which entails taking a deep breath through the nose and then exhaling slowly through pursed lips.

How to Prevent Lung Disease

You can protect your lungs by avoiding exposure to pollutants such as secondhand smoke, dust and chemical fumes. Always wear a mask when using paints and solvents, which produce toxic fumes.

Keep the air inside your house fresh and clean. Open curtains and windows to make sure your home is well ventilated. Dust and vacuum regularly, preferably with a vacuum cleaner with a good air filter. Get rid of damp spots to limit the growth of molds and mildew.

As we have all been reminded with the COVID-19 pandemic, we can prevent respiratory infections by regular hand washing, avoiding close contact with those who are sick and staying away from crowded areas during the flu season.

Don’t Ignore Symptoms of Lung Disease

As discussed, there are many different lung diseases that can affect your quality of life. Initially the most common symptoms are shortness of breath and a persistent cough.

Visit your medical practitioner as soon as you experience these or other lung disease symptoms. Early diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid possible serious breathing problems and disability in the future.