Respiratory Disease

Respiratory disorders serious enough to cause long-term breathing problems are common in the United States and will no doubt become more prevalent as the population gets older. Almost 400,000 Americans die of lung diseases every year, and over 35 million are now living with chronic lung disease.

Fortunately, technological advances are producing opportunities to prevent, diagnose, and treat lung diseases. As a result, people with these disorders are living longer and better lives today than they did in the past.

Here is the latest information (as of 2011) on the prevention and treatment of a number of common lung diseases. Our goal is to help you work more closely and effectively with your doctor to improve your breathing. The following disorders are reviewed:


An inflammatory lung disease, asthma is characterized by shortness of breath, wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest. Asthma is considered to be an obstructive lung disease because it causes narrowing of the airways. With careful management, however, most individuals with asthma can breathe normally and lead otherwise healthy and active lives.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Like asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an obstructive lung disease; it includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Changes in chronic bronchitis are not usually permanent, but those in emphysema are. Fortunately, there are many steps that people with COPD can take to make life easier.

Sleep apnea

This condition refers to temporary, recurrent breathing interruptions that take place during sleep. Marked daytime drowsiness and snoring are two common signs of sleep apnea. Treatments are available to help people with this disorder improve both their breathing and their sleep.

Interstitial lung disease

The term "interstitial lung disease" refers to a group of conditions that cause extensive scarring of the interstitium, the tissue that makes up the walls of the air sacs in the lungs. Although treatment of interstitial lung disease is not always effective, supportive medical care can help people with this condition live more comfortably.

Lung cancer

Most often caused by cigarette smoking, lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. While lung cancer often is not caught before it has spread and becomes difficult to treat, many new therapies are being tested.

Pulmonary embolism

A pulmonary embolism usually occurs when a blood clot from a deep vein in the leg breaks loose and blocks one or more arteries leading to or within the lungs. A number of treatments are available to help prevent blood clots from forming and emboli from becoming life threatening.


Common lung infections include acute bronchitis, influenza (flu), and bacterial pneumonia. Vaccines can help prevent some of these infections, and treatments are available to ease their impact when they do develop.

Lung Disease Management Issues

As with any illness, deciding how to manage the problem involves weighing the risks and benefits of all the options. Cures are available for many lung disorders; for all of them, treatment is available to alleviate the symptoms. Whatever your situation, it is important that your personal preferences are part of the decision-making process. Your doctor has the information, but it is your breath and your life.

Publication Review By: Peter B. Terry, M.D., M.A.

Published: 31 Jul 2011

Last Modified: 22 Jul 2015