Types of Lung Disease

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From the moment that you are born until your last breath, your lungs keep all the tissues in your body alive. Without the work of your lungs—which take more than 20,000 breaths each day—your heart, brain, and other organs would not function, and you would not survive.

Although your lungs are true workhorses, the tissues that they are made from are delicate and can be easily damaged.

There are many diseases that affect the lungs. Here is an overview of the different kinds of lung diseases, what causes them, how they are diagnosed, and how they can be treated.

What Your Lungs Do

The lungs are not just empty sacs that inflate and deflate with each breath. They are made up of a complete system of filters and membranes that move oxygen into your body and get rid of waste gases like carbon dioxide.

If you were to take the entire surface area of your lungs and stretch it out in a straight line, the total length would be about 1,500 miles—roughly the distance between Las Vegas and Chicago.

Air enters the lungs through your nose and mouth, traveling down the trachea and through the bronchial tubes to the left and right lungs.

There are millions of tiny balloon-like air sacs called alveoli in your lungs that transfer gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide from the air that you breathe to your blood. Even though your lungs contain millions of alveoli, the sacs are only about one cell thick and can be easily damaged by chemicals and other irritants.

When alveoli are damaged, little by little your body loses its ability to take in oxygen and get rid of toxic gases, which then build up in your blood.

Types of Lung Disease

Lung diseases are categorized into three subgroups:

  • Airway diseases
  • Lung tissue diseases
  • Lung circulation diseases

Most chronic lung diseases involve a combination of types.

Types of Lung Disease

Verywell / Hilary Allison

How Many People Have Lung Disease?

Your lungs depend on their ability to expand and contract to move oxygen and other gases in and out of your body. Over a lifetime of breathing, many people develop some type of lung disease.

Most studies focus on individual diseases, but a 2017 report reviewed the global burden of lung disease, ranking it as the third-most-common cause of death in the world.

The study also showed that the risk is increasing. From 1990 to 2017, the prevalence of chronic lung disease increased by nearly 40% around the world. During the same period, death from chronic respiratory diseases increased by 18%, and disability increased by 13%.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is consistently ranked as the most common lung disease, and smoking is the primary risk factor. The other most common chronic lung diseases include:

Airway Diseases

Airway diseases are one of the main types of lung diseases. These diseases are grouped together because they affect your body's ability to move air in and out of your lungs. The subgroup is also referred to as obstructive, or reactive, lung diseases.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic respiratory disease that can be caused by genetics and factors in your environment like allergens. Asthma never goes away, but you can control it with medications like steroid inhalers.

When asthma flares up, it's called an asthma attack. These attacks are caused by inflammation and the narrowing of your airways that make it harder to breathe.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of conditions that cause breathing problems that get worse over time. The two types of COPD are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

If you have chronic bronchitis, your bronchial tubes are irritated and can become inflamed and narrowed. With emphysema, the alveoli that move oxygen and other gases between the air you breathe and your blood stop working. While the lungs have millions of these tiny sacs, if they are destroyed, your body gets less oxygen, and fewer waste gases are removed.

If you have COPD, you may have chronic bronchitis, or emphysema, or both. Smoking is a major contributor to COPD, and quitting smoking may slow the progress of the disease.

There are also medications and other treatments to help control COPD, but it cannot be cured and generally gets worse over time.

Bronchitis

Bronchitis is the inflammation of your bronchial tubes. When you breathe air in through your nose or mouth, the air passes through your throat (trachea) to the bronchial tubes. These tubes carry air to and from each lung.

When these tubes are inflamed because you have an acute infection or chronic irritation, your airway can narrow and fill with mucus, making it more difficult to breathe.

Bronchitis can be classified as acute or chronic, as follows:

  • Acute bronchitis is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection. It can take a few weeks to recover from this type of bronchitis.
  • Chronic bronchitis is caused by long-term exposure to irritants like air pollution, industrial chemicals, or cigarette smoke. There are medications that can help expand your airway, but chronic bronchitis cannot be cured and usually gets worse over time. Chronic bronchitis is usually diagnosed as a form of COPD.

Emphysema

Emphysema is a disease that develops when the alveoli that move gases between the air you breathe and your blood are destroyed. The tiny sacs are delicate and elastic, and long-term exposure to irritants like cigarette smoke and pollution or chemicals can damage them.

Medications and supplemental oxygen are treatment options for emphysema, but there is no cure for the condition and it usually gets worse as time goes on. Like chronic bronchitis, emphysema is usually diagnosed under the umbrella of COPD.

Lung Tissue Diseases

With lung tissue diseases, parts of your lung tissues are damaged—for example, by scarring or another injury. This subgroup of diseases is sometimes called interstitial lung disease.

Regardless of the cause, the damage to lung tissue can make it harder for your body to move oxygen and other gases in and out of your blood. Without fresh oxygen in your blood, the tissues in the brain and heart can be damaged quickly.

Pulmonary Fibrosis

Pulmonary fibrosis is a type of interstitial lung disease in which the tissues deep in your lungs become scarred, making them thick and stiff. Certain diseases, medications, and environmental pollutants can cause this scarring.

For many people, the inflammation that causes the scarring is from an unknown cause. In this case, the disease is called idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Over time, the scarred tissue cannot move oxygen and other gases in and out of your body. As this happens, you might feel increasingly short of breath. As the condition progresses, people usually develop respiratory failure.

Sarcoidosis

Sarcoidosis is a condition that causes inflammation that can affect your lungs, skin, and lymph nodes. The cause of sarcoidosis is unknown, but certain groups of people are more at risk than others. Sarcoidosis is most common in:

  • People ages 20–50
  • People in African American populations, especially women
  • People of northern European descent

Steroids are the primary treatment for the condition. There is no cure and many people with pulmonary sarcoidosis eventually develop pulmonary fibrosis and/or pulmonary hypertension.

Lung Circulation Diseases

After oxygen and other gases pass through the alveoli, your circulatory system is tasked with moving oxygen to all the tissues of the body and bringing back waste products to the lungs for disposal.

Some diseases that affect the circulation of blood to and from the lungs can make it more difficult to bring oxygen to the body and remove harmful gases like carbon dioxide.

Pulmonary Hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension is a disease that develops when the blood that moves through the arteries in your lungs (pulmonary arteries) is putting a lot of force on the vessel walls.

When the arteries in your lungs become narrowed, your heart works harder to pump blood through them with more force. This extra work can wear on the heart and lead to heart failure.

Pulmonary hypertension can be genetic, but it's also linked to other heart and lung diseases.

There is no cure for pulmonary hypertension. It can make you feel tired, short of breath, and even make it more difficult for you to complete everyday tasks.

When the cause of pulmonary hypertension is another heart or lung condition, treating those conditions is key to managing the disease.

Pulmonary Edema

Pulmonary edema develops when your heart is not pumping efficiently, and blood backs up in the network of blood vessels that serve the lungs. When this happens, the buildup of fluid in and around your lungs can squeeze the alveoli and create pressure that makes breathing difficult.

Congestive heart failure often leads to pulmonary edema, which can be treated by addressing any underlying diseases like heart failure. Medications that help move extra fluid out of your lungs, like diuretics, can also be used.

Pulmonary Embolus

A pulmonary embolus is a serious medical event that occurs when a blot clot develops in the arteries of your lungs. The clots can block the flow of blood and cause complications in the heart and lungs.

While a pulmonary embolus can develop as an isolated incident after a surgery or injury, some people develop the clots chronically because they have blood clotting disorders.

While a pulmonary embolus can develop as an isolated incident after a surgery or injury, some people develop the clots chronically because they have blood clotting disorders.

If you develop a pulmonary embolus, your doctor may have you take medications to help prevent future clots.

Summary

There are many diseases that can affect how well your lungs are able to move oxygen and other gases in and out of your body.

When any part of the process is disrupted—from the inhalation and exhalation of air to the transfer of gases between tissues and blood—your entire body is affected.

Talk to your doctor about any family history of diseases that can impact your lung health as well as address any factors in your lifestyle that might be contributing to your risk for lung disease.

A Word From Verywell

Breathing is one of the most important tasks your body handles and, in most cases, you do not have to think about doing it. However, if your lungs become damaged or weakened, the feeling of not being able to breathe can take over your thoughts and even put your life in danger.

Smoking is the biggest threat to your lung health. Other than cancer, smoking is a primary cause of damage to lung tissues and your airways. Talk to your doctor about quitting smoking and about any other changes you can make to improve your health.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is obstructive lung disease?

    Obstructive lung disease is a term used for any type of respiratory disease in which your airway becomes narrowed or blocked, making it difficult to breathe.

  • What is the life expectancy of a person with chronic lung disease?

    Your life expectancy if you have chronic lung disease depends on the type of lung disease that you have, how early you were diagnosed, and what you can do to manage the condition. Few chronic lung diseases can be cured, but many can be effectively managed with medications and lifestyle changes.

  • What can a person do to reduce the risk of lung disease?

    There are several steps you can take to protect your lungs. While you might not be able to change your genetics or the air quality where you live, you can quit smoking and avoid occupations in which harsh chemicals are used.

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16 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  16. National Institutes of Health. Pulmonary embolus. Updated October 8, 2021.