There are a few types of diseases that can affect the main part of the respiratory system, the lungs. Airway diseases narrow the passages into and out of the lungs. Conditions that affect lung tissue can cause inflammation or scarring that prevents the lungs from expanding fully. Lung circulation diseases affect the blood vessels in the lungs.

Some of these conditions are chronic, while others may be a medical emergency. Any of them can affect how well the lungs exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide.


Asthma is a long-term condition that affects the airways in the lungs. These airways can become inflamed and narrow significantly at times, making it harder to breathe. Depending on the person, asthma attacks have various triggers, such as pollen, viral infections, cold air, and exercise. While there is no cure for asthma, it is manageable with medication and lifestyle changes.

Recent research shows that while asthma was once considered a single diagnosis, people with asthma may have different symptoms and respond to treatment differently. About 15 percent of asthma cases are difficult to treat, and understanding why people have varying symptoms may lead to optimized treatments in the future.

Woman With Chronic Asthma Hiking in Desert FatCamera / Getty Images


Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a form of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) that affects the airways leading into the lungs. The airways or bronchi become inflamed, leading to an increase in mucus production. This condition usually affects smokers, causing a chronic, productive cough, wheezing, shortness of breath, and chest discomfort.

Chronic bronchitis has no cure and can lead to heart failure. More studies are needed, but recent research has examined the possibility of bronchoscopic treatment options for COPD.

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Emphysema is another type of COPD that affects the air sacs or alveoli in the lungs. Typically, alveoli are elastic and stretchy. In people with emphysema, they are damaged; they lose their shape, and the walls between them may break down, leading to fewer larger air sacs and making breathing harder.

Smoking is the primary cause of emphysema, and there is no cure. Recent research on mice using stem cells as a way to regenerate damaged air sacs shows promise, but more studies are needed to see if these results can be replicated in humans.

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Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema occurs when an abnormal amount of fluid accumulates in the lung, primarily in the alveoli. This significantly impairs the lungs' ability to exchange carbon dioxide and oxygen, eventually leading to respiratory failure. Some researchers recently created a computer program to help predict the risk of pulmonary edema in surgical patients. While the machine learning model was effective at doing so, more research is needed due to false positives and figuring out how to apply the machine learning model.

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Tuberculosis (TB) is a contagious infection that spreads through the air when someone with the infection coughs, sings, or speaks and other people inhale it. Some people have latent TB and do not have any symptoms, though they can still spread the infection.

People with weakened immune systems are particularly at risk for developing TB. The infections are treatable, but if left untreated, they can progress to TB disease, which causes significant lung damage and can be fatal.

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Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a lung disorder characterized by scarring of the lungs. Sometimes, there is an identifiable cause, but if the cause is unknown, the condition is known as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis. Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is usually progressive and has a poor prognosis. Early signs are shortness of breath that worsens and a nonproductive cough. Risk factors include tobacco smoke, dust, wood, or metal exposure.

The current theory about the origin of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is that an injury to the alveoli triggers an immune system response that causes tissue remodeling and scarring. There is no cure for this condition; in severe cases, doctors may recommend a lung transplant.

Pulmonologist showing CT scan of lungs female with pneumonia over background lungs exam for patient. Lung disease, pulmonary fibrosis peakSTOCK / Getty Images


Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a genetic condition that causes a faulty protein in the body, which affects how the body makes mucus and sweat. Mucus protects the lining of the lungs and the GI tract. It is usually slippery, but in people with CF, it's thick and sticky, which can cause blockages and damage to the lungs and other organs.

CF varies in severity; some people have few symptoms, while others experience life-threatening complications. There is no cure for CF, but research into treatments is ongoing.

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Pulmonary Hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension increases the pressure in the arteries and veins that supply the lungs with oxygenated blood and carry deoxygenated blood away. Multiple factors can cause it, including left-sided heart disease, lung disease, hypoxia, clots, or damage to the alveoli.

Pressure builds inside the lungs' blood vessels until the right ventricle of the heart can no longer sustain cardiac output. The most common cause of death in people with pulmonary hypertension is right-sided heart failure.

Doctor listening to patient's heartbeat during home visit FG Trade / Getty Images


Pulmonary Embolism

A pulmonary embolism (PE) is a blood clot in the arteries supplying the lungs. Most occur when a blood clot from the calf breaks off and travels to the lung. The clot goes through the venous system, into the right side of the heart, and then lodges in the pulmonary arterial system.

Symptoms can vary drastically, from no signs at all to death. PE causes as many as ten percent of hospital deaths and kills about 100,000 people annually in the United States. People older than 70 are three times more likely to develop PE than those between 45 and 69, who are, in turn, three times more likely to develop PE than someone between ages 20 and 44.

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Lung Cancer

There are different types of lung cancer, including non-small cell lung cancer (NCCLC), which is the most common and affects the cells lining the surfaces of the airways, and small cell lung cancer (SCLC), which often begins in the lung.

Smoking is the most significant risk factor for developing lung cancer and is estimated to cause 85 percent of cases. Although treatment has come a long way in the last few decades and survival rates are improving, lung cancer remains one of the most common and deadliest types of cancer.

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