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Lung Disease & Respiratory Health Center

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Lung Diseases Overview

Lung diseases are some of the most common medical conditions in the world. Tens of millions of people suffer from lung disease in the U.S. Smoking, infections, and genetics are responsible for most lung diseases.

The lungs are part of a complex apparatus, expanding and relaxing thousands of times each day to bring in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. Lung disease can result from problems in any part of this system.

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Lung Diseases Affecting the Airways

The trachea (windpipe) branches into tubes called bronchi, which in turn branch to become progressively smaller tubes throughout the lungs. Diseases that affect the airways include:

  • Asthma: The airways are persistently inflamed, and may occasionally spasm, causing wheezing and shortness of breath. Allergies, infections, or pollution can trigger asthma's symptoms.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): Lung conditions defined by an inability to exhale normally, which causes difficulty breathing.
  • Chronic bronchitis: A form of COPD characterized by a chronic productive cough.
  • Emphysema: Lung damage allows air to be trapped in the lungs in this form of COPD. Difficulty blowing air out is its hallmark.
  • Acute bronchitis: A sudden infection of the airways, usually by a virus.
  • Cystic fibrosis: A genetic condition causing poor clearance of mucus from the bronchi. The accumulated mucus results in repeated lung infections.

Lung Diseases Affecting the Air Sacs (Alveoli)

The airways eventually branch into tiny tubes (bronchioles) that dead-end into clusters of air sacs called alveoli. These air sacs make up most of the lung tissue. Lung diseases affecting the alveoli include:

  • Pneumonia: An infection of the alveoli, usually by bacteria.
  • Tuberculosis: A slowly progressive pneumonia caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium tuberculosis.
  • Emphysema results from damage to the fragile connections between alveoli. Smoking is the usual cause. (Emphysema also limits airflow, affecting the airways as well.)
  • Pulmonary edema: Fluid leaks out of the small blood vessels of the lung into the air sacs and the surrounding area. One form is caused by heart failure and back pressure in the lungs' blood vessels; in another form, direct injury to the lung causes the leak of fluid.
  • Lung cancer has many forms, and may develop in any part of the lungs. Most often this is in the main part of the lung, in or near the air sacs. The type, location, and spread of lung cancer determines the treatment options.
  • Acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS): Severe, sudden injury to the lungs caused by a serious illness. Life support with mechanical ventilation is usually needed to survive until the lungs recover.
  • Pneumoconiosis: A category of conditions caused by the inhalation of a substance that injures the lungs. Examples include black lung disease from inhaled coal dust and asbestosis from inhaled asbestos dust.

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