Respiratory Disorder Signs and Symptoms

The symptoms of many lung disorders are similar, but the severity and duration of these symptoms can vary considerably from disease to disease. Lung disorders can be acute (short and relatively severe, such as pneumonia and pulmonary embolism) or chronic (persisting for many years).

Chronic lung conditions such as asthma, COPD, and interstitial lung disease may wax and wane in severity and can worsen quickly and markedly if another problem, such as a lung infection, occurs.

Common symptoms of lung disorders include shortness of breath, coughing, noisy breathing, and chest pain. Some people, however, have only mild symptoms or none at all. In these individuals, the disorder may be detected by a physical examination, on a chest x-ray, or by a test to check lung function.

Shortness of Breath

Obviously, shortness of breath can dramatically compromise your quality of life. Usually, the underlying cause is a mechanical problem in the lungs or the diaphragm (the large, dome-shaped muscle located at the base of the lungs).

Examples of mechanical problems are airway obstruction (as occurs in asthma, COPD, and some lung cancers), increased stiffness of the lungs (as in interstitial lung disease, pneumonia and heart failure), severe spine and rib cage abnormalities and obesity.

Left untreated, shortness of breath can lead to fatigue and weakness that may profoundly limit a person's activities. In turn, weakness related to being out of shape or having musculoskeletal disease (such as severe curvature of the spine) may aggravate shortness of breath.


Coughing up phlegm, germs, and foreign substances is one of the ways in which the lungs protect themselves. Severe coughing, however, may signal a respiratory disease.

Obstructive diseases of the lungs (asthma and COPD) and lung cancer often cause a person to cough up phlegm, which, if yellow or green, may signal an infection. Especially among former smokers, coughing up blood is a critical sign, suggesting the possible presence of a life-threatening disease such as lung cancer or pulmonary embolism. Sometimes, however, it is merely the result of a less serious problem such as bronchitis.

Chronic cough in an adult with a normal chest x-ray is most often the result of postnasal drip, asthma or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD, in which stomach acid flows back into the esophagus).

Interstitial lung disease, bronchiectasis (persistent widening of the airways) and pneumonia, all of which produce inflammation or scarring of the lungs, also cause coughing.

Noisy Breathing

Noisy breathing is an especially common sign of respiratory disease. Abnormal sounds range from a high-pitched crowing during inhalation (which occurs with croup, inflammation of the epiglottis or tumors in the upper airway) to continuous musical sounds during exhalation (wheezing, which occurs with asthma and some other disorders).

There's a maxim in the practice of medicine—"all that wheezes is not asthma"—underscoring the fact that many health conditions, including diseases of the larynx, heart failure, pulmonary embolism and COPD, can cause wheezing. Repetitive loud snoring during sleep, interrupted by periods of silence in which there is no airflow, is a major sign of sleep apnea.

Chest Pain

Pain or other discomfort in the chest may result from any number of causes, and it is often a challenge to determine whether the cause lies in the heart, the esophagus or the respiratory system. Pain on one side of the chest that worsens with deep breathing, coughing, or laughing suggests pleurisy, an inflammation of the pleura (the membrane around the surface of the lungs and the inner chest wall).

Pleurisy may be caused by an infection (such as pneumonia), a pulmonary embolism, cancer or a systemic inflammatory disease that affects the entire body such as systemic lupus erythematosus.

Alternatively, pain that worsens during inhalation may be due to a chest wall injury such as a broken rib.

Other Symptoms of Lung Disorders

Respiratory illnesses can also produce general symptoms. For example, low levels of oxygen in the blood, fragmented sleep patterns, chronic lung infections, and lung cancer can all lead to fatigue. Many people whose respiratory illness limits their daily activities have particular difficulty with activities that involve the arms, such as carrying objects, showering, and performing other grooming tasks. These tasks often become a greater challenge than walking.

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

Published: 01 Aug 2011

Last Modified: 15 Dec 2014