Respiratory Diseases – Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Respiratory diseases

There are many different diseases of the respiratory tract , all of which make themselves felt through shortness of breath, coughing and reduced performance. Smoking and air pollution are the number one causes, but non-smokers in a low-pollution environment can also become ill. Some respiratory diseases are infections, others have an autoimmune cause, and science has not yet found any answers for some rare diseases.

What are respiratory diseases?

Respiratory diseases can affect the upper and lower airways and thus extend from the trachea through the bronchial system to the pulmonary alveoli. Some subsequently also affect the blood supply to the lungs and lead to pulmonary hypertension. Accordingly, respiratory diseases can also be of varying severity.

A rough distinction is also made between obstructive and restrictive airway diseases. Common complaints are coughing, phlegm , shortness of breath and declining performance.


From the point of view of the underlying cause, it is useful to distinguish obstructive from restrictive airway diseases. An obstruction refers to a narrowing or blockage of the airways, as can be the case, for example, with an asthma attack , chronic bronchitis or a bronchnial tumor growing inwards.

In contrast, restrictive means that the elasticity of the lung tissue, the basis of each individual breath, is reduced and thus simply less air can be drawn into the lungs. This problem is mainly present in diseases of the lung tissue such as pneumoconiosis or pulmonary fibrosis .

Diseases such as pneumonia , which causes a combination of both problems, or pulmonary embolism , in which the blood supply to the lungs is cut off by a blood clot , do not fall into this category . Strictly speaking, it is therefore more of a circulatory disease or an absolute emergency than a respiratory disease in the narrower sense.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

Respiratory diseases are very diverse and can therefore have very different symptoms. What all types of respiratory diseases have in common, however, is that breathing becomes difficult. This can be due, for example, to increased mucus production, swelling of the airways, or pain in the airways. In most cases, there is also a cough with different types of sputum.

Depending on the location of the disease, different symptoms appear. For example, sinus infections are associated with congestion. Mucus is also secreted. Sinus involvement can also cause pain.

Respiratory diseases in the throat and trachea area, on the other hand, are more likely to be accompanied by a scratchy feeling and – occasionally – by severe pain. The latter are usually due to the cough , which is all the more severe the more irritated the airways are. Involvement of the bronchi and lungs is generally associated with more severe symptoms than upper respiratory tract infection.

In severe cases, there is shortness of breath and hoarseness , which can go as far as temporary loss of voice. The respiratory rhythm is disturbed in most cases. Respiratory diseases that are or become chronic can also permanently lead to reduced performance because the body’s oxygen supply is not optimal. In severe cases, the heart and other organs can also be affected.

The shape & type

The “classic example” of an obstructive airway disease is bronchial asthma: Here, mostly due to genetic causes, there is an allergy to certain substances or hypersensitivity to cold air, stress or harmless infections, which leads to a narrowing of the smallest bronchi.

The result is paroxysms of shortness of breath. The problem then is not so much taking a breath – the diaphragm is initially strong enough to overcome the resistance – as exhaling the air. This is where asthmatics have the greatest trouble, the result being over-inflation of the lungs and impaired oxygen transport.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, also known as chronic bronchitis or COPD , has the same problem . In most cases, the cause is smoking. If COPD affects a non-smoker, the underlying cause is usually an alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency. There is a permanent disturbance of the bronchial self-cleaning function, which leads to chronic coughing with mucous sputum and frequent infections.

In the long term, many people with COPD will eventually need to be supplied with an oxygen cylinder at home. In the short term, both the asthmatic and the person with COPD can use emergency sprays with bronchodilators and long-term therapy with glucocorticoid sprays to suppress the inflammation.

Idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis is one of the restrictive airway diseases. The word “idiopathic” in medicine always signals that nobody knows the cause of this disease. However, fibrosis occurs, i.e. thickening of the lung tissue, which makes it very difficult to transport oxygen through the walls of the alveoli, leads to chronic dry coughing and, in the long term, causes high pressure in the pulmonary bloodstream. Suppressing the immune system with spray or tablets is often the only treatment option for this disease.


The possible complications of respiratory diseases depend on which clinical picture is present. Acute bronchitis usually has no complications and heals completely within a few days to weeks. With a descending (descending) infection, there is a risk of pneumonia.

The most serious complications of pneumonia are acute progressive lung failure (ARDS) and blood poisoning ( sepsis ). Frequent recurrences of acute bronchitis can damage the bronchial mucosa and thus promote chronification of the disease. Sudden worsening (excerbation) is the most common complication of chronic bronchitis.

The increased secretion production can lead to a bacterial infection that acutely aggravates the clinical picture. The transition from chronic to chronic obstructive bronchitis (COPD) is feared. If the infection descends into the alveoli, damage can occur, leading to pulmonary emphysema. The obstruction also promotes the development of right heart failure (cor pulmonale).

The greatest danger of COPD lies in the occurrence of acute excerbations, which result in a permanent loss of lung function. The most dangerous complication of bronchial asthma is status asthmaticus. These are very frequent or long-lasting, severe attacks that are often life-threatening. As a result of bronchial asthma, pulmonary emphysema and right heart strain or right insufficiency can form.

When should you go to the doctor?

Respiratory diseases are among the most common diseases. With young children, parents should always consult a doctor. The child’s immune system is not yet fully developed. The childhood respiratory disease can take a dramatic course with high fever and wheezing. This needs to be treated quickly and professionally. Some of what appear to be respiratory illnesses can be caused by an object stuck in the nose.

In adults, colds with cough and runny nose can initially be treated by yourself. Bed rest and inhalations are often a good remedy for cold-related respiratory problems. A visit to the doctor is only necessary if you have a more serious respiratory disease, for example because you are on sick leave.

However, the situation is different in the case of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma or the onset of pneumonia. Visits to the doctor are absolutely necessary here. Such diseases can be recognized by the more dramatic symptoms. If an initially normal respiratory disease worsens or does not improve within the usual time, it is urgent to consult a doctor.

Sometimes self-treatment doesn’t work. In this case, it is necessary to investigate whether more appropriate measures need to be taken. A delayed respiratory disease like real flu can have consequences such as pleurisy or myocarditis. Asthma can also be caused by allergies. If necessary, a lung specialist or allergist must be consulted.

Treatment & Therapy

Connections to dust exposure in the city, in the country or at work have been proven for many other restrictive lung diseases, which are often named according to their origin: There is dust lung, farmer’s lung, quartz lung, cheese washer’s lung, winegrower’s lung and many more. Here, too, immunosuppression and, of course, elimination of the triggering dust is the therapy of choice.

Pneumonia and acute bronchitis are the respiratory infections. Bronchitis occurs higher up, is almost always viral and primarily leads to a dry and painful cough. Viruses and bacteria can be involved in pneumonia , so it can usually be treated well with specific antibiotics . In addition to the cough, which can also be productive, fever , chills and sometimes shortness of breath are the main symptoms here. An x-ray can usually provide information. The flu and the common cold are also among the acute respiratory diseases.

Strictly speaking, bronchial carcinoma , the most common cancer of the lungs, is classified as a tumor and less as a disease of the respiratory tract. Nevertheless, it should be listed here, as it is usually also promoted by inhaled toxins (smoking) and can cause the same symptoms as the respiratory diseases listed above.

Outlook & Forecast

The prognosis for respiratory diseases varies greatly. There are many different respiratory diseases that can be chronic or acute. There are also those that can be traced back to direct damage to the airways and those that have pathological causes.

In general, most acute respiratory diseases have a good prognosis. If appropriate protective behavior is tried, infections in particular can heal quickly. Clean air and, if necessary, medication also accelerate this. This applies, for example, to acute bronchitis or a cold . Most people are affected by a mild form of chewing airway disease several times a year.

Chronic conditions such as bronchial asthma or chronic bronchitis, on the other hand, have a different prognosis. In most cases, it is to be expected that the condition of the person affected will not improve, but that therapy will only suppress the symptoms symptomatically.

Accordingly, such respiratory diseases mean a permanent restriction. The extent to which life expectancy is reduced is also a question of the exact disease. A progressive disease (COPD, tuberculosis, etc.) means more therapy is required. In severe cases, a progressive deterioration of the condition is to be expected. Damage to the tissue in the respiratory tract further worsens the prognosis.

Finally, there are numerous allergies that directly affect the respiratory tract. These, too, will usually accompany those affected for a lifetime and are usually not causally curable. Equipped with the right medication, however, a normal life is possible.


For the general prevention of respiratory diseases, the very first thing is definitely not smoking. The connection between cigarettes and lung cancer is now common knowledge, but most smokers are not aware that there are other painful diseases such as COPD that are directly related to smoking and should increasingly become part of health education in the future from a society-wide perspective .

In addition, exposure to pollutants at the workplace represents an enormous risk factor for many respiratory diseases. Mandatory respiratory protection masks should therefore be worn at all costs, a company doctor should monitor compliance with protective measures by the employer and, if in doubt, employees can also be consulted for advice.


If you have survived a respiratory disease, follow-up examinations are very important and significant so that this disease does not break out again. If there was a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract, then at least one follow-up examination should take place. Only through such a follow-up examination can further complications be ruled out.

Even in the subsequent healing process, the respiratory disease can break out repeatedly. In particularly bad cases, it can even lead to re-infection if this disease is not properly cured. However, if you decide to have at least one follow-up examination for a respiratory disease, you can count on a smooth healing process.

There should not be any major complications as long as the doctor’s instructions are followed. After recovering from a respiratory illness, at least one follow-up examination should take place. Such an examination is the only way to avoid possible complications.

You can do that yourself

The options for self-help for respiratory diseases depend on the type of disease.

In the case of respiratory diseases caused by infections, drinking sufficient amounts and taking mucus-forming substances help to cough up the pathogens and thus remove them from the body. Chamomile , eucalyptus oil and spicy foods are considered to be mucus-forming .

Gargling with warm salt water can also support mucus formation in the throat. This salt water can also be used for nasal douches , which have a supporting effect in this area.

Coughs resulting from respiratory problems can be relieved by sucking on throat drops when needed. In addition, these sweets are also available with various active ingredients that can be antibacterial, anticonvulsant, pain-relieving and much more. Steam baths and inhaling essential oils and medicinal plants in hot water also help to calm the respiratory tract and stimulate mucus production.

In the case of respiratory diseases that are chronic or result from damage to the respiratory tract, anticonvulsant measures and, if necessary, external pain relief with warm wraps and the like also help.

It is particularly important that substances that can further irritate and weaken the respiratory system are avoided. Avoid cigarette smoke, dust and chemical vapors. If necessary, simple breathing masks can be used to protect a diseased respiratory system. Controlled and relaxed breathing is still important and should be practiced.

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Hello! I am Lisa Newlon, and I am a medical writer and researcher with over 10 years of experience in the healthcare industry. I have a Master’s degree in Medicine, and my deep understanding of medical terminology, practices, and procedures has made me a trusted source of information in the medical world.