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Chronic Respiratory Disease

What's the Problem?

Chronic respiratory diseases are chronic diseases of the airways and other structures of the lung. Some of the most common are: asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, occupational lung diseases and pulmonary hypertension.  Chronic lower respiratory disease, primarily Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2011. Approximately fifteen million Americans have been diagnosed with COPD.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD, refers to a group of diseases that cause airflow blockage and breathing-related problems. It includes emphysema, chronic bronchitis, and in some cases asthma. The purposes of the lungs are to bring oxygen (abbreviated O2), into the body and to remove carbon dioxide (abbreviated CO2). Oxygen is a gas that provides us energy while carbon dioxide is a waste product or "exhaust" of the body.

Who’s at Risk?

In the United States, tobacco smoke is a key factor in the development and progression chronic respiratory diseases, including COPD, although exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role.

The following groups were more likely to report COPD:

  • People aged 65–74 years.
  • Non-Hispanic whites.
  • Women.
  • Individuals who were unemployed, retired, or unable to work.
  • Individuals with less than a high school education.
  • People with lower incomes.
  • Individuals who were divorced, widowed, or separated.
  • Current or former smokers.
  • Those with a history of asthma.

Can it be Prevented?

Respiratory diseases can be prevented.  Avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke, home and workplace air pollutants, and respiratory infections can prevent the development of COPD. Smoking is the most common cause of chronic respiratory diseases like COPD. Smoking cessation is the most important part of treatment for smokers diagnosed with chronic respiratory disease. Indoor and outdoor air pollutants cam also cause respiratory problems.  Air pollution can irritate, inflame, or destroy lung tissue.  Washing hands regularly with soap and water can prevent respiratory infections. It is estimated that hands spread 80 percent of common infectious respiratory diseases like colds and flu. Early detection of respiratory diseases might change disease course and progress. A simple test, called spirometry can be used to measure pulmonary—or lung—function and detect COPD in anyone with breathing problems.

The Bottom Line

  • Chronic respiratory diseases are chronic diseases of the airways and other structures of the lung.
  • Tobacco smoke is a key factor in the development and progression chronic respiratory diseases, including COPD.
  • Exposure to air pollutants in the home and workplace, genetic factors, and respiratory infections also play a role.
  • Chronic respiratory diseases can be prevented.
  • Avoiding first and secondhand smoke, and indoor and outdoor pollutant exposure can help prevent chronic respiratory disease.

Case Example                

Mary has smoked since the age of eighteen, well aware of the harmful effects of tobacco smoke.  Over the last few months, she began to notice a mild, occasionally productive cough.  She also notices some shortness of breath when she exercises.  She visits her primary physician who diagnoses with early mild COPD.  Her doctor prescribes medication and counseling. Additionally, he suggests she begin to think about quitting smoking since that is a key factor in her COPD. 

Spanish Version Chronic Respiratory Disease

  • Page last reviewed: June 23, 2015
  • Page last updated: June 23, 2015
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