Respiratory disease

Medical quality assurance by Dr. Albrecht Nonnenmacher, MD at November 22, 2016
StartDiseasesRespiratory disease

The respiratory system facilitates breathing and the intake of oxygen and expulsion of carbon dioxide. It consists of the nose, mouth, nasal passages, trachea, pharynx, lungs, and bronchi. Respiratory diseases hinder the proper functioning of the respiratory system. 


Definition & Facts

Respiratory disease refers to pathological conditions that compromise the performance of the tissues and organs that facilitate gas exchange. Respiratory illnesses consist of conditions that affect the trachea, bronchioles, pleura and pleural cavity, alveoli, and muscles of breathing.

Respiratory diseases include mild and self-limiting conditions like the common cold and life-threatening conditions such as bacterial pneumonia, lung cancer, and pulmonary embolism.

Respiratory tract infections are caused by fungal infections, bacterial infections, or viral infections and encompass lower respiratory tract infections and upper respiratory tract infections. Infections of the lower respiratory tract are those which affect the lungs, bronchi, and trachea. Infections of the lower respiratory tract include pneumonia, chronic bronchitis, and acute bronchitis.

Infections of the upper respiratory tract often manifest as sinusitis (inflammation of the sinus cavities), epiglottitis (inflammation of the epiglottis), strep throat, laryngitis (inflammation of the larynx).

Respiratory diseases that affect the lungs in particular include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and emphysema. Occupational lung diseases are lung diseases acquired while on the job. They include sarcoidosis, asbestosis, silicosis, hard metal lung disease, berylliosis.

An exceptionally broad range of causal factors can result in diseases of the respiratory tract. In addition to pathogens like viruses, bacteria, and fungi, inhaled gases and dust are a potential source of disease and allergic reactions. Heart disease and vascular disease also have a high likelihood of affecting the lungs as well.

Symptoms & Complaints

The symptoms of respiratory diseases vary greatly depending on the type of condition the patient is suffering from. However, respiratory symptoms typically include difficulty breathing and abnormal breathing rates. Patients may experience fast breathing and shallow breathing.

Coughing is a common symptom of many respiratory diseases. A cough that produces sputum (a productive cough) manifests as part of inflammatory conditions such as bronchitis. A persistent, unproductive cough (that is, a cough that does not produce sputum) may be a sign of a serious underlying lung disease.

While the presence of traces of blood in the sputum may result from an infection that is improving, it may be an indication of the presence of capillary damage, inflammation, or tumor.

Respiratory illnesses can cause wheezing, particularly after participating in strenuous activity or even mild exercise like walking. Crackles are also a feature of diseases affecting the lungs. These are abnormal sounds in the lungs that can be heard through a stethoscope. Apart from being a sign of cardiac trouble, chest pain can also be a symptom of a more severe respiratory infection. 


There is a strong association between cigarette smoking and respiratory disease. Both active smoking and passive smoking (that is, secondhand smoke) of cigarettes are the primary causes of more severe respiratory complications. In addition to tobacco use, respiratory diseases can develop due to the following factors:

  • Allergies and low immunity
  • Climatic conditions and exposure to extreme air pollution
  • Genetic factors. For example, cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that results from inherited genetic mutations
  • Insufficient development of lungs prior to birth or in the course of childhood 
  • Exposure to excessive smoke and other toxic materials such as harsh chemicals, fibers, dust, and asbestos
  • Existence of viral, bacterial, or fungal infections that can compromise the health of the lungs

Diagnosis & Tests

Medical professionals will diagnose respiratory disease through various diagnostic tools used to examine the condition of the lungs and respiratory system. Doctors heavily rely on a patient's medical history, presentation of symptoms, and a physical examination to create a diagnosis.

Physicians will assess the patient's respiratory rate. They will assess the presence of inflammation or fluid in the lungs by keenly listening to the patient’s breathing sounds in order to detect crackles. Pulmonary function tests measure the effectiveness of the lungs in regards to inhalation and exhalation as well as how oxygen enters the blood.

The physician will check the patient’s upper respiratory tract and throat by peering through the nose and mouth. Bronchoscopy entails insertion of a tube consisting of a light source and camera into the bronchial tubes and the trachea to check for the presence of tumors, bleeding, inflammation, and other abnormalities.

Various imaging studies such as computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, or an X-ray may be necessary to examine the condition of the lungs.

Treatment & Therapy

Treatment depends greatly on the type of the disease or condition. Infections caused by bacteria can be treated with antibiotics. Conditions such as pertussis (whooping cough) can be treated with erythromycin, azithromycin, or clarithromycin. Levoflaxin is an antibiotic used to treat bacterial pneumonia.

Unnecessary use of antibiotics results in antibiotic resistance so prudent, careful prescribing techniques must be exercised (picking the most efficient antibiotic and recommending the proper dosage).

Antiviral therapy might be appropriate for certain patients suffering from viral infections of the respiratory system. Ribavarin is an antiviral drug used to treat respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) infections.

Severe illnesses such as lung cancer may require surgery. Surgery can take the form of lung transplantation, pneumonectomy (removal of entire lung), or lobectomy (removal of lobe of lung). Chemotherapy and radiation therapy may also be necessary to treat cancers of the respiratory system.

Prevention & Prophylaxis

Many respiratory diseases are untreatable though preventable. Practicing good personal hygiene is the best preventative strategy for avoiding respiratory infections. They include the following techniques:

  • Washing hands regularly, particularly after being in a public place
  • Avoiding touching the face (mouth and eyes) with dirty hands to prevent introducing germs into the respiratory system
  • Sneezing into a tissue/covering one's cough to avoid spreading the infectious disease to others

In order to prevent lung diseases, the following measures should be pursued:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Adopting proper safety measures when working or living around pollutants and hazardous materials
  • Consuming a vitamin-rich diet to boost one's immune system and overall health
  • Getting flu vaccinations each year. Getting vaccinated also improves the health of the community in which one lives.