Dr. Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona is a healthcare educator and System Chair of the Department of Medicine at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, and Mount Sinai Health System. As a physician-scientist, Dr. Kraft specializes in clinical and translational research in airway diseases along with care of patients with severe lung disease. In this article, she discusses the causes and symptoms of some of the most common respiratory diseases, and how to reduce the risk of serious complications.
Airway diseases are referred to in the medical world as any disease that affects or inhibits the natural flow of air to the lungs through the 23 branches of airways and the distribution of oxygen around the body.
Allergens, pollution and a cold, the latter due to viral or bacterial infections, can all affect the airway. These illnesses usually clear up after a week or so and leave no lasting effects. However, there are some more long-term and even incurable airway diseases, and it’s important to know how to spot them, and when to seek treatment explains Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona.
Monica Kraft on the Types of Airway Diseases
Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona says that because the number of diseases that affect the airway are many and varied, they are usually divided into categories, so that doctors can best decide on both prevention where possible, and effective treatment for sufferers.
Infectious Airway Diseases
Some airway diseases are infectious, so they can be transmitted to others, usually via saliva or microscopic droplets in the air. Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University explains that wearing masks by those at high risk to prevent infection like COVID-19, a severe lung disease to some, can be vital.
Infectious diseases of the airways include SARS-CoV-2, the common cold due to rhinovirus, and influenza. Tuberculosis (TB) is less common infectious lung disease which can be fatal if left untreated. Symptoms of TB include weight loss, high fever, pain in the chest, and coughing up blood. Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University says that such symptoms require medical intervention as soon as possible.
Non-Infectious Airway Diseases
Other airway diseases that are not infectious include bronchitis, which presents with symptoms that include fatigue, persistent coughing with production of sputum (phlegm) that does resolve within three weeks, is not infectious explains Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona. However, it can develop after a viral infection which does not completely resolve.
Obstructive Airway Diseases
Obstructive airway diseases are those that affect the ability of the lungs to inflate with air. This is usually due to the fact that the airways become inflamed and narrowed.
Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona explains that these diseases are often chronic and include conditions that develop early in life or develop later due to genetic factors. One such disease is asthma, which causes symptoms of chest tightness and wheezing, and shortness of breath, which can be so severe that the sufferer may require hospitalization. In very severe cases, it can cause death. There are many treatments available for mild to severe asthma. Improved understanding of the immunology of asthma has led to treatments which focus on particular kinds of “phenotypes” of asthma.
Another obstructive airway disease is cystic fibrosis, a genetic condition that results in thick mucus clogging up the respiratory and digestive systems. It is an incurable disease that is often diagnosed early on in a child’s life after such symptoms as a persistent cough, frequent airway infections and low growth rate. Thankfully, many effective treatments exist for cystic fibrosis and many of those afflicted are living long and productive lives.
Another common obstructive lung disease is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or COPD. It affects over 200 million people all over the world and is one of the leading causes of death in the United States.
COPD usually occurs after years of smoking or working in environments with heavy air pollution, such as in a coal mine or in a factory with chemicals. COPD is an incurable, obstructive airway disease and symptoms include a persistent, worsening cough with production of mucus that is difficult to clear, and shortness of breath, usually requiring intervention such as inhalers. In more severe cases, supplemental oxygen is prescribed. Lung transplant is a treatment for the most severe, carefully selected patients.
Restrictive Airway Diseases
When lung capacity is restricted, either from blockage or a decrease in lung elasticity, this is known as a restrictive airway disease. Scarring lung diseases, called interstitial lung diseases are in the category of restrictive lung disease. Interstitial lung disease can be caused by infection, exposure to toxins or pollutants, autoimmune disease or be idiopathic where no cause is yet known. The scarring process leads to lungs that are smaller than normal and sufferers cannot expand their lungs adequately to breathe well. There are fewer available treatments for restrictive lung diseases as compared to obstructive lung diseases. Generally a consultation with a pulmonary specialist is needed as there are many types of restrictive lung diseases. Some types are more responsive to treatment than others, so it is important to seek expert consultation.
Prevention of Airway Diseases
Most people recover from infections or other exposures that cause airway diseases. Others are genetic and cannot be prevented. Still, Monica Kraft, formerly of Duke University and the University of Arizona says that there are many ways to avoid many lung diseases, including COPD and lung cancer, the latter which often coexists with COPD.
The most important way to reduce the risk of such diseases is to quit smoking as soon as possible and avoiding second-hand smoke. Smoking is the leading cause of all deaths from airway diseases. Removing yourself from working in environments with significant pollutant and chemical exposures will also reduce risk.
To best avoid everyday airway diseases for those at high risk or risk of complications with illness exposure, it is recommended for those individuals to wear masks at times when the infection rate in the population is high, such as the fall or winter in the case of influenza. In the case of SARS-CoV-2, wearing a mask when indoors or outdoors with large groups is also helpful to decrease the spread of this virus. It is also important to wash the hands regularly with soap, get adequate sleep and maintain a healthy diet to keep the immune system robust.