Respiratory diseases are exceedingly common in the US, with nearly 40 million people suffering from the two most common forms, COPD and asthma. However, there are many ways to prevent respiratory conditions from developing in the first place.
Until you have a condition that affects the way that you breathe, it’s easy to take your breathing for granted. However, since the moment you were born, your body has required a steady exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide to occur in your lungs to support all of your body’s basic processes of living.
When you develop a respiratory illness or other condition, you may require specialized support to make sure that you can continue to breathe easily. Respiratory therapists, also known as RTs, are health professionals who have devoted their careers to helping people of all ages breathe better. They support people in their time of need, and their expertise has been especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are proud to work with an amazing team of respiratory therapists who help our patients breathe easier, day in and day out. In honor of Respiratory Care Week (October 24 to 30th), here is what you need to know about the most common respiratory diseases, and what you can do to prevent them.
The Basics of Respiration (Breathing)
Your lungs are some of your hardest-working organs. However, your lungs cannot take in and release air on their own, without the help of other important body structures. Together, your nose and mouth, the back of your throat, your trachea (windpipe), bronchi and bronchioles (branches coming off the windpipe), and diaphragm all work to help fill the tiny sacs of your lung tissues with air. Equally important, they help your lungs release that air once oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules have been exchanged.
The system that makes it possible for you to breathe is called your respiratory tract. When you have a respiratory disease, any part along your respiratory tract may be affected. Whether because of infection, inflammation, trauma, or exposure to something in the environment, damage to your respiratory tract can take a toll on how well you are breathing, which is why respiratory therapists are such important members of the healthcare team.
Types of Respiratory Disease
Respiratory illnesses are usually divided into two categories, upper and lower. Upper respiratory diseases affect the part of your respiratory tract that is close to the entry point of the air, typically your nose, sinuses, mouth, and back of your throat. Common upper respiratory diseases are conditions like cold viruses, allergies, sinus infections, tonsillitis, and even croup. Lower respiratory diseases affect the part of the respiratory tract that is further away from the entry point of air—the lungs themselves or the branches of the windpipe that lead into the lungs. These include conditions like asthma, pneumonia, and chronic bronchitis.
People Who Are Affected by Respiratory Disease
Any person of any age can develop a respiratory disease. Upper respiratory infections are one of the top three conditions that bring people into the doctor’s office every year. Some respiratory conditions, like respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) are more likely to affect infants and young children. Others, such as emphysema, are far more common in adults. Even though respiratory conditions can strike anyone, at any time, certain factors make some people more likely to develop a respiratory condition. These factors include exposure to viruses, personal cigarette smoking or exposure to secondhand smoke, and environmental exposures.
Common Respiratory Diseases
Upper respiratory illnesses, like colds and sinus problems, typically do not require the support of respiratory therapists, unless they are very severe. Lower respiratory illnesses are more likely to require aid from a respiratory therapist. Here are a few of the most common lower respiratory conditions.
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
COPD develops from inflammation of the airway, typically after exposure to cigarette smoke. It occurs in two forms, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis. People with COPD can experience coughing, wheezing, phlegm production, and the sensation of being short of breath. COPD is very common, in fact, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it is one of the leading causes of death in the US. When people with COPD have a flare, they may need the support of respiratory therapists to reduce their airway inflammation and support their breathing.
When people have pneumonia, it means they have an infection in their lungs. Pneumonia can be caused by viruses, bacteria, and even fungi. Often, pneumonia improves with the support of specific medications that fight off viruses, bacteria, or fungi. However, if a pneumonia is severe enough that it is affecting a person’s breathing, they may need the support of a respiratory therapist to make sure that they receive an adequate amount of oxygen.
Asthma is a respiratory condition that causes swelling of the airways, which can make it difficult, or impossible, for lung cells to receive air. As many as 25 million Americans suffer from asthma, according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). Asthma can be triggered by smoke, pets, dust mites, pollen, and many other environmental factors. Fortunately, with the help of respiratory therapists, it is entirely possible to keep your asthma under good control by avoiding triggers and taking medicine.
Other Conditions That May Require Respiratory Therapy
Upper respiratory illnesses, COPD, pneumonia, and asthma are the most common respiratory illnesses, but many other conditions may require the services of an experienced respiratory therapist.
- Obstructive Sleep Apnea (OSA): Sleep apnea is a disease in which the muscles and other tissues of the upper airway relax so much that they collapse while the person is sleeping, causing a temporary halt of breathing. This condition is commonly managed with a specialized respiratory device known as a CPAP machine, but many other supportive devices can help, as well.
- Pulmonary embolism: A pulmonary embolism, or blood clot in the lung, can cause respiratory symptoms. While the problem is not solved with breathing support alone (a clot must be dissolved or removed), a respiratory therapist can help support a person’s breathing until the clot can be managed.
- Cystic fibrosis: Cystic fibrosis is a genetic lung condition that causes an overproduction of sticky mucus, which can make it very difficult to breathe. Some people with cystic fibrosis have few symptoms, while others have many symptoms. Respiratory therapists and specialized physical therapists can help people with cystic fibrosis clear mucus from their lungs and breathe easier.
- Chest trauma: If you have had a chest trauma—such as a deflated lung, bleeding in the lung, or lung surgery—a respiratory therapist can help your medical team figure out how to best support your breathing and help you heal your lungs as quickly as possible. This can be especially important at the very beginning of your treatment before you have had a definitive repair.
Respiratory therapists often help support a person's breathing before their medical team has uncovered the underlying cause of their distress. For this reason, they are a crucial part of the critical care and emergency services team.
How Medical Professionals Assess Respiratory Disease
If you have a history of respiratory disease, or if you’re experiencing a respiratory condition for the first time, there are several ways that a healthcare provider can determine how well your lungs are working. If you’re in the emergency room with respiratory symptoms – such as difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, chest tightness, painful breathing, cough, or wheezing—the way that your respiratory tract is evaluated may be more involved than if you were being evaluated in a regular doctor’s office.
To evaluate your breathing, a healthcare professional may:
- Look at the way you’re breathing, including how fast or slow, and how much effort (or “work of breathing”) is required
- Use a sensor or blood test to see how well your blood is receiving oxygen
- Listen to your lungs using a stethoscope to hear various respiratory sounds
- Measure your pulmonary function using a spirometer or peak-flow meter
- Use ultrasound to see how your lungs move
- Take a picture of your lungs using an X-ray or CT scan
There are many other ways that health professionals can assess your lung performance, as well. Often, people with respiratory symptoms can be experiencing problems with other body systems too, such as the heart. For this reason, a medical professional may also use other tools (such as an electrocardiogram, or EKG) to make sure no other conditions are contributing to your breathing symptoms.
Depending on the findings of your respiratory assessment, a certified respiratory therapist can help support your breathing using special equipment such as nasal oxygen, inhalers, nebulizers, face masks, C-PAP machines, Bi-PAP machines, or even ventilator machines. All of these tools are designed to help open up your airway and make it easier for your lungs to release carbon dioxide molecules and take in new oxygen molecules.
Why Preventing Respiratory Disease is Crucial, Now More Than Ever
In the US, respiratory disease is exceedingly common, with more than 40 million Americans suffering from just COPD and asthma alone. During the pandemic, respiratory disease has affected even more people than ever, as COVID-19 is a predominantly respiratory illness that can cause severe pneumonia and respiratory difficulties, and may require a ventilator for full support. Respiratory therapists have shown heroic work throughout the pandemic, fighting diligently to make it easier for their patients to breathe. However, everyone will be better served if we can prevent respiratory disease in the first place, and avoid the progression to severe disease.
Here are some important steps you can take to prevent respiratory disease:
- Do not smoke. If you do smoke, ask for help quitting. This is the most important step you can take to reduce your risk of respiratory disease.
- Prevent infection by avoiding people with known illness, wearing masks when in crowded indoor places, and washing your hands with soap and water frequently.
- If you have asthma, avoid known triggers as much as possible, and stay up to date with your medications.
- Get vaccinated against the illnesses that are known to cause respiratory diseases, such as influenza, Strep pneumoniae, and SARS-CoV-2.
- Avoid chemicals and pollutants, particularly if you are in an indoor setting.
- Avoid outdoor air pollution
The American Lung Association also recommends exercising regularly to keep your lungs healthy and making sure to get regular check-ups with a healthcare provider. These prevention measures can go a long way in keeping you healthy.
Finding Support for Respiratory Disease
At Lompoc Valley Medical Center, we are here to support you throughout your health journey. If you have respiratory disease or believe you may be developing a respiratory condition, don’t delay. Contact us today for an evaluation.