Respiratory Problems 101

Respiratory Problems 101

Coughs are very common, especially during the winter month. So common, in fact, that many people just dismiss them as an annoyance which is likely the result of a lingering cold. This may well be the case, but cough symptoms and wheezing may indicate asthma or other possibly serious respiratory problems. Here are the most usual symptoms of respiratory problems you might want to look out for:

  • Cough The two types are dry and chesty (the latter produces phlegm - a colorless or yellow/green discharge)
  • Breathlessness (clinical name, dyspnoea). Could be at rest, on exercise, or on lying down. May involve wheezing noise and be worse at certain times
  • Chest pain. Might be mild to severe, sharp or aching, worse on exertion

There are several important respiratory diseases, including asthma, so how does the pattern of symptoms fit the diagnosis? Before we discuss that, if you are worried at any point about the respiratory symptoms you or someone else is experiencing, please do see a doctor as soon as possible. This post is for informational purposes.


Asthma has three main characteristics which mark it out from other respiratory diseases:

  • Narrowing of the airways and impeded air flow in and out of the lungs that are reversible with treatment
  • Oversensitivity or 'twitchiness' of the airways
  • Inflammation of the airways and production of lots of mucus which narrows them even more

Asthma is an inflammatory disease and most cases are caused by an allergic response to a trigger like house dust mites, general air pollution or pet dander. Irritants like tobacco smoke can also increase asthma symptoms.

Asthma symptoms include episodic coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, and breathlessness. Recent research has shown that nasal congestion may also be present and is often overlooked as an asthma symptom. These symptoms are often worse early in the morning or last thing at night. Asthma attacks vary widely in their frequency and severity.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is characterised by irreversible lung damage which obstructs breathing out and makes breathing increasingly hard. The progressive nature of COPD distinguishes it from asthma. The main symptom of chronic bronchitis is a chronic cough (sometimes called "smoker's cough") while the main symptom of emphysema is chronic breathlessness. Smoking is a major risk factor for COPD.


Pneumonia can be caused by a virus (influenza), bacterium (Streptococcus pneumoniae) or fungus (Aspergillus). The under fives and over-65s are most at risk, as are those with weakened immunity. It's also possible to pick up pneumonia from traveling abroad or from faulty air-conditioning (Legionnaire's disease). Symptoms of pneumonia include fever, cough, breathlessness and coughing up blood. Since pneumonia can follow a bout of flu, it's wise to get a flu injection if you are in an at-risk group (for example, if you have asthma).

Lung Cancer

More people die in Europe and the USA from lung cancer than from breast, prostate and colon cancer combined. The disease has a worse outlook than that of many other cancers. The majority of cases of lung cancer are linked to smoking with the risk increasing with the number of cigarettes smoked and the number of years the person has been a smoker. Long-term exposure to urban air pollution, as well as high levels of indoor air pollution, can also cause lung cancer. Symptoms of lung cancer include a worsening cough, coughing up blood, chest pain, hoarseness, breathlessness on exertion and unplanned weight loss.

We began this post with the symptom of a cough and we'll end in the same way. Don't ignore a chronic (more than three weeks) a cough. Yes, it may be the aftermath of a cold, but it might also be something more serious. Also keep in mind that a high-end air purifier can lead to a 90% reduction of dust and air pollution in your home, capturing particulate and gas pollution that otherwise your lung would need to deal with.

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