3 chronic conditions that can damage your lungs

Lung Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Mar 23, 2015

Every time you take a breath, it kick-starts a complex series of events that brings oxygen from the air into the blood that circulates through your entire body. It’s a fascinating process that can sometimes hit speed bumps.

“At least 40 million Americans are currently diagnosed with a chronic lung condition,” said Mark Millard, MD, medical director of the Martha Foster Lung Center at Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas.

Here, he brings us up to speed on three conditions that cause trouble for the lungs (and have nothing to do with smoking), as well as the latest treatments.

1) Asthma

Americans affected: About 26 million
The most common chronic lung condition, asthma, is characterized by inflammation and spasms of the airways, which causes wheezing and shortness of breath. Though asthma has a strong genetic component and usually develops in childhood, Dr. Millard says some cases do appear in adulthood.

“Those are often more serious and difficult to treat.”

How it’s treated: Daily medications can help keep symptoms at bay, and the latest inhalant medications are very effective at reducing inflammation and spasms, Dr. Millard said. You can also reduce your risk of an attack by avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke, allergies and pollution.

2) Pulmonary fibrosis

Americans Affected: 140,000

This progressive disease causes scarring and stiffness in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.

“It stems from a defect in how the lungs repair themselves—they scar instead of heal,” Dr. Millard said.

Causes may include autoimmune diseases, genetics and chemical exposure (such as asbestos).

How it’s treated: Without medication, the prognosis is bleak.

“Life expectancy after diagnosis is just three to five years,” Dr. Millard said. “Thankfully, two newly FDA-approved medications may help slow its progression and turn back the clock on scarring.”

3. Cystic Fibrosis

Americans affected: 30,000

This inherited condition is characterized by an inability of the lungs to effectively clear mucus from the bronchi, the main passageways of the lungs.

“These individuals experience chronic lung infections, and many will require transplantation,” Dr. Millard said.

How it’s treated: Individuals born with cystic fibrosis have a difficult road ahead, requiring treatment several times each day as well as frequent hospitalizations.

“But exciting new medications for treating CF are on the horizon,” Dr. Millard said. “These treatments may be able to repair the basic genetic defects and allow these individuals to lead normal lives.”

To learn about the latest therapeutic techniques to control CF symptoms and improve quality of life, visit our website.

A version of this article originally appeared in the March 2015 edition of Baylor Health Magazine.

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