The fall and winter are often associated with respiratory illnesses, and it’s not uncommon to see people coughing and sniffling throughout both seasons. It’s always important to do what you can to prevent and best manage such illnesses. It’s also important to identify what you have so you can address it appropriately, and know when to seek professional help.
More types of respiratory ailments are out there than ever before, which can make the process of determining what you’re suffering from that much more difficult. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most prevalent respiratory illnesses, their symptoms, and what you can do about them.
Understanding Respiratory Illnesses
First and foremost, it’s important to understand the difference between various conditions – which can be either acute or chronic – that can impact your respiratory system. Some of these can be managed relatively effectively, while others are harder to address, and symptoms may be more life-impacting.
Acute respiratory illnesses come up suddenly and last for a short time. They can be caused by viruses, bacteria and infections, such as a cold or flu, and may go away on their own or disappear after appropriate medical treatment.
Chronic respiratory conditions get worse with time. They may be caused by unhealthy habits (like smoking), aging or genetics, and include asthma, allergies and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Treatment of chronic conditions often includes slowing the progress of the disease and managing symptoms, since many have no cure.
9 Common Respiratory Ailments
Being able to identify what is ailing you can go a long way toward helping you know how to approach it – and to getting some relief. Thinking you just have a cold when you really have a chronic illness could mean a lot of long days and nights of not feeling your best. Here are nine of the most common respiratory illnesses:
Asthma is a chronic condition where the airways narrow or produce excess mucus, leading to coughing, wheezing, chest tightness and trouble breathing. Some people experience mild symptoms, while others have serious asthma attacks. Asthma can be managed by medications, diet, supplements, and by eliminating triggers. Those triggers are different for everyone, but they may include exercise, allergens, or workplace dust and chemicals. Asthma symptoms and severity can change over time, and you should seek medical attention if your wheezing or shortness of breath gets worse – or if using an inhaler doesn’t stop an attack.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is often caused after extended exposure to harmful gases or pollution, like cigarette smoke. Symptoms include wheezing and shortness of breath, as well as a cough (with mucus), ankle swelling, and frequent respiratory infections. Chronic bronchitis and emphysema lead to COPD, too. There is no cure and it tends to get worse with time, but it is treatable with medications, inhalers and lung therapy. Those living with COPD can improve their quality of life by not smoking, and by reducing their exposure to lung irritants and pollution.
3. Lung Cancer
Although lung cancer is often associated with smoking and the inhalation of, or exposure to, other dangerous substances, the truth is it can occur in anyone. Tumors start in the lungs, but are often undetected until they spread into other parts of the body and start interfering with organ function. Disease may have advanced by the time symptoms are recognizable. Symptoms include a sudden cough that won’t go away, coughing up blood, shortness of breath, or chest and bone pain. If you smoke, talk to your doctor about getting help to quit, and consult a medical professional if you have any concerning symptoms.
4. Chronic Bronchitis
While acute bronchitis is a “chest cold” that typically goes away in 1 to 3 weeks, chronic bronchitis “is a constant irritation or inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes” that is far more serious. Chronic bronchitis is often a result of cigarette smoking or pollution rather than a virus. Whether chronic or acute, the symptoms are the same – cough, mucus, fatigue, shortness of breath, chest discomfort, and maybe a light fever – but chronic bronchitis comes with a cough that may last 3 months or more. You may also have repeated episodes over the course of a couple of years, so you should see a doctor if you have an ongoing cough with discolored mucus or blood, if the cough keeps you from sleeping, or if you also have a fever over 100.4º F.
Another chronic respiratory condition usually caused by smoking, emphysema involves damage to the air sacs in the lungs. Your used-up air gets trapped because those air sacs aren’t working correctly, and there’s less room to breathe in fresh oxygen. The primary symptom is shortness of breath, and it usually comes on slowly. See your doctor if you’re short of breath while performing simple daily activities, if you’re having trouble staying mentally alert, or if your lips or fingertips turn blue when you’re exerting yourself.
Pneumonia is an acute infection caused by a virus, bacteria or fungus. It can be mild or life-threatening, with symptoms ranging from chest pain and persistent cough to confusion (particularly in older adults), fatigue, fever, chills, vomiting and diarrhea. You should see a doctor if you have difficulty breathing, an ongoing fever above 102º F, or if you’re in a high-risk group, including those under age 2, over age 65, or with a weakened immune system.
The novel coronavirus has shown itself to be a highly-contagious, fast-spreading respiratory illness affecting people of all ages – particularly those with underlying health conditions. Symptoms of COVID-19 vary from person to person, but may include shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, cough, fever, fatigue and more. Emergency medical care is required if you have trouble breathing, can’t stay awake, feel pressure in the chest, or start to turn blueish in the face and lips. Those with mild symptoms typically seem to make a full recovery without medical intervention.
8. Chronic Sinusitis
Typically caused by an infection, this relatively common ailment occurs when your sinuses are swollen for more than 3 months. The condition can interfere with your breathing and sinus drainage, causing a stuffy nose. Symptoms of chronic sinusitis include thick nasal discharge, pain and swelling around your eyes and nose, and reduced sense of taste and smell. Acute sinusitis may occur alongside a cold and correct itself, but you should see a doctor if you frequently have these infections and symptoms last more than 10 days or don’t respond to treatment. The chronic version may be a result of allergies, candida overgrowth, nasal polyps or other medical conditions.
Allergies are chronic, and they may show up or disappear at any point throughout your life. Some can cause life-threatening allergic reactions, but many are more annoying than threatening. Hay fever and certain skin reactions are typically treated with over-the-counter allergy medications and supplements. You may be able to reduce symptoms with certain lifestyle changes, like consuming an anti-inflammatory diet and managing stress. People with severe anaphylactic reactions to food or insect stings may carry an epinephrine auto-injector with them, as anaphylaxis should always be treated as an emergency.
There are many types of respiratory diseases. While symptoms may be similar, treatments and outcomes can vary greatly, so always consult your doctor about any symptoms you experience.
Taking Preventive Measures
You can’t prevent every respiratory ailment, but there are some steps you can take to promote overall health, boost your immune system, and prevent the spread of communicable diseases. Some of the most common include:
• Washing your hands regularly
• Not smoking
• Avoiding other air pollutants
• Exercising regularly
• Eating a healthy, well-balanced diet
• Boosting your immune system with nutritional supplements
• Getting plenty of sleep
• Managing your stress
• Visiting your doctor for regular checkups and early detection of serious diseases
Respiratory health is an important part of your overall well-being. It pays to be proactive by understanding your risk for respiratory disease and doing what you can to prevent it. Contact Village Green Apothecary to speak with an expert about any questions you have about respiratory illnesses.