Respiratory Illness

What are Respiratory Illnesses? Prevalence, Types, and Preventive Measures

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The human respiratory system is composed of a series of organs that are responsible for taking in oxygen and expelling carbon dioxide. The lungs, which carry out this exchange of gases as we breathe, are the primary organs of the respiratory system.

The lungs work in coordination with the circulatory system to pump oxygen-rich blood to all the cells in the body. Then, the blood collects carbon dioxide and other waste products and transports them back to the lungs, where they are pumped out of the body when we exhale.

To sustain itself, the human body requires oxygen. After only around five minutes without oxygen, brain cells start to die, which can lead to brain damage and eventually, death.

In humans, the average respiratory rate varies depending on age. For instance, a newborn’s normal respiratory rate is approximately 40 – 60 times per minute, and may slow down to 30 – 40 minutes per minute when they are sleeping. For adults, the average resting respiratory rate is around 12 – 16 breaths per minute and may increase to 40 – 60 breaths per minute during exercise.

Respiratory Illnesses: Prevalence and Types

Respiratory illnesses are among the leading causes of disability and death in the world. Genetics, infections, and smoking are responsible for most respiratory illnesses.

Respiratory illness is a type of disease that affects the lungs, as well as other parts of the respiratory system. Respiratory illnesses may be caused by infection, genetics, smoking, or by breathing in secondhand cigarette smoke, asbestos, radon, or other forms of air pollution.

There are different types of respiratory illnesses. Below, we list down 4 of its most common types:

  1. Asthma
    Asthma is a common, chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways characterized by episodes of breathing issues due to airway narrowing and obstruction. It affects approximately 339 million people around the world and kills about 1,000 people every day.
    Asthma attacks can vary in severity – it can be mild or in some cases, life-threatening. Symptoms of asthma include chest tightness, coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath. Infections, pollution, and allergic reaction can trigger asthma attacks. Asthma typically starts in childhood and progresses into adulthood. However, some older adults in their 60s and 70s can still get adult-onset asthma.
  2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
    Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic, progressive respiratory illness where the airflow in and out of the lungs decreases which makes it difficult to breathe. Over time, the lung airways thicken and become inflamed, making it harder to expel waste carbon dioxide. As the disease progresses, people with COPD experience shortness of breath, which can limit activity. Approximately 250 million people around the world may have COPD, and about 65 million of these cases are moderate to severe. Experts predict that the number of COPD cases will continue to rise globally in the next 50 years.
    COPD has two main types: chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Chronic bronchitis is characterized by a long-term cough with mucus; on the other hand, emphysema is characterized by damage to the air sacs in the lungs. The majority of individuals with COPD have a combination of both types. Smoking is the leading cause of COPD. Other factors such as a genetic susceptibility to the disease, air pollution, secondhand smoke, and workplace exposure to fumes and dust may increase your risk of developing COPD.
  3. Pneumonia
    Pneumonia is a common lung disease caused by an infection in one or both lungs. Infections can be viral, fungal, or bacterial. It affects approximately 450 million people each year throughout the world and is a leading cause of death among all age groups.
    Symptoms of pneumonia can be mild to life-threatening. It may include coughing, fever, chills, shortness of breath, chest pain, fatigue, nausea or vomiting, and headaches. The very young and the elderly are more at-risk of developing pneumonia and other complications associated with pneumonia. Moreover, people can become increasingly susceptible to pneumonia depending on their smoking history or overall immune status. For instance, if you are sickly or frail, you may be more at risk of developing pneumonia compared to young, healthy people.
  4. Lung Cancer
    Lung cancer occurs due to the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells in one or both lungs. These abnormal cells don’t perform the functions of normal lung cells and don’t develop into healthy lung tissue. As these abnormal cells grow, they can form tumors and interfere with the functioning of the lung. Lung cancer is the most common cancer among men and the third most common among women. Every year, more and more people die of lung cancer than of breast, prostate, and colon cancers collectively.
    Cigarette smoke remains the primary cause of lung cancer. However, factors such as secondhand smoke, air pollution, radon exposure, workplace exposure to diesel fumes and asbestos, and radiation exposure from constant chest CT scans can increase your risk of developing lung cancer as well. Symptoms of lung cancer may take years to develop and may not appear until the disease is advanced. Some of its symptoms include persistent coughing, harsh breathing sounds, chest pain, shortness of breath, changes in voice, and coughing up blood.

Preventative Measures

There are several things that you can do to avoid respiratory illnesses, such as:

  • Stop smoking. If you are a smoker, get help in quitting. If you are a non-smoker, don’t start. Smoking either causes or worsens most respiratory illnesses.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke. Just like primary smoking, secondhand smoke can cause or worsen most respiratory illnesses. So, avoid secondhand smoke as much as possible.
  • Wash your hands regularly. Approximately 80% of common infectious respiratory illnesses like colds and flu are spread by hands. Reduce your risk of getting sick by washing your hands regularly.
  • Protect yourself from work hazards. People who work in certain jobs, such as mining and construction, are constantly exposed to risk factors that cause respiratory illnesses. So, if you spend a lot of time working around dust, asbestos, diesel fumes, and other pollutants, make sure to wear protective clothing. Also, ensure that work areas are properly ventilated.
The Bottom Line

Respiratory illnesses are becoming increasingly common across the world.

While certain risk factors like genetics can’t be avoided, you can reduce your risk of developing certain respiratory illnesses through healthy lifestyle habits, such as smoking cessation and regular hand washing.

If you suspect that you have a respiratory illness – don’t delay. Talk to your doctor immediately. They can properly diagnose your condition, recommend the correct treatments, and provide you with helpful tips for respiratory care at home.

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