Chronic lower respiratory disease (CLRD) is a group of diseases that affect the lungs and is considered the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. CLRD includes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)—including emphysema and chronic bronchitis—as well as asthma, pulmonary hypertension, and occupational lung disease. This condition is most common among smokers, but everyone should be aware of their risks.
Smoking is the main cause of these diseases, accounting for about 80% of cases. However, exposure to air pollutants at home and in the workplace, genetic factors and respiratory infections may also play a role in the development of chronic lower respiratory disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
As mentioned earlier, chronic lower respiratory disease is an umbrella term for lung diseases. Typical symptoms of most of these conditions include:
- shortness of breath
- Increased mucus (phlegm) production
- chronic cough
- racing heartbeat
Other symptoms may vary depending on root condition:
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): COPD is characterized by restricted airflow into and out of the lungs. Symptoms include chronic cough, shortness of breath, phlegm and chest tightness.
- Emphysema: Patients with Emphysema – a Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease– Damage to some of the air sacs in the lungs. Symptoms include chronic cough, shortness of breath, phlegm, frequent respiratory infections, chest pain, and cyanosis.
- Chronic bronchitis: When the lining of the airways in the lungs becomes red and swollen, this is a sign of chronic bronchitis, another type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Other symptoms include mild fever, runny nose, sore throat, chest and nasal congestion, and expectoration that turns into a dry cough.
- Asthma: Asthma airways are highly sensitive to certain triggers (smoke, pollen, infection, etc.) and can be plagued by symptoms such as wheezing, coughing, shortness of breath, and chest tightness. Symptoms are not constant and may increase during an asthma attack.
- Occupational lung disease: Smoking, secondhand smoke, radon gas, air pollution, and exposure to substances such as asbestos at work can cause symptoms that vary in severity, from recurrent respiratory infections to coughing up blood.
CLRD is primarily diagnosed by a thorough physical examination, intake history, and assessment of lung function, but each condition may require more specific tests to narrow the diagnosis.
The main tests used to diagnose most lower respiratory diseases include some combinations of:
- Blood tests such as arterial blood gas (ABG) and complete blood count (CBC)
- Pulmonary function tests, such as peak expiratory flow rate (PEFR) and spirometry
- Imaging tests, such as a chest X-ray, are often used to support the diagnosis and may show airway inflammation
- pulse oximeter
- athletic ability
The severity and treatment of the disease varies with the specific type of chronic respiratory disease. If you are a current smoker, the most important thing to help you with your treatment is to quit smoking. Avoiding secondhand smoke and other air pollutants may also help, as can wearing a mask or ventilator in the workplace if you are often near triggers.
Your healthcare provider will help you create a pulmonary rehabilitation program that focuses on your specific disease management needs and helps you improve your quality of life.
Certain symptoms, such as coughing, wheezing, or high blood pressure, can be treated with medication. Supplemental oxygen may be given to patients with low blood oxygen levels due to chronic lower respiratory disease.
Exercise has also been shown to be helpful for many different lung conditions, as it helps improve lung function. A study of 114 patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease found that physical activity in the form of walking had a positive effect on decreased lung function.
Relief from COPD
The best treatment and form of treatment for CLRD will depend on your specific situation. But with all forms of CLRD, there are many steps you can take to prevent further progression of the disease, most of which focus on close monitoring, keeping up with medication and following pulmonary rehabilitation techniques, in addition to maintaining balanced nutrition, good hydration , regular gentle exercise in an effort to reduce stress. Work with your healthcare team to find the best comprehensive treatment plan for you.