People often say “I’m out of breath” when they are rushing around and busy, but do they really know what it means to struggle for every intake of air? Puffing and panting are normal during physical exertion, sure, but Respiratory Care Week (Oct. 20-26, 2019) offers the chance to look at what breathing’s all about—and ways to improve our own as well as for those around us.
First of all, are you up to speed on what the respiratory system is and does? Sure, it’s the lungs and their work, but in addition to providing oxygen to, and removing carbon dioxide from, the body, there’s also a need to know about naturally occurring, man-made, and infectious conditions that can imperil the respiratory system and cause disability or death. Specific coursework exists to help bring healthcare workers up to speed, and this is a great offering during Respiratory Care Week.
Let’s take a look at some common respiratory conditions and illnesses:
This common, chronic respiratory condition causes difficulty breathing due to inflammation of the airways. Asthma symptoms include dry cough, wheezing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath. Environmental allergies, allergic reactions, infections, and pollution can all trigger an asthma attack.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease is an umbrella term encompassing a suite of respiratory illnesses that cause breathlessness, or the inability to exhale normally. According to the American Lung Association (ALA), it is the third leading cause of death in the United States.
Chronic bronchitis is a form of COPD identified with a chronic cough and is treated in the same manner as COPD.
Emphysema is another form of COPD, usually caused by smoking. Cigarette smoke damages the air sacs in the lungs to a point where they can no longer repair themselves, making exhalation difficult.
This cancer can develop anywhere in the lungs and is difficult to detect. Most often, the cancer develops in the main part of the lungs near the air sacs. The most common risk factor for lung cancer is cigarette smoke, followed by radon exposure, workplace exposure such as to asbestos and diesel fumes, secondhand smoke, air pollution, and radiation exposure from frequent chest CT scans.
Cystic fibrosis is a genetic respiratory disease caused by a defective gene that creates thick and sticky mucus that clogs up tubes and passageways. It causes repeated dangerous lung infections, as well as pancreatic difficulties that affect digestion and enzyme production.
Pneumonia is a common lung disease caused by an infection in the air sacs in the lungs. These infections can be bacterial, viral, or fungal. Most people can recover in one to three weeks, but for the very young or elderly, pneumonia can be deadly.
Pleural effusion is a collection of fluid between the lung and the chest wall in what’s called the pleural space. The fluid can collect for a variety of reasons, including pneumonia, cancer, or congestive heart failure.
Prevention Measures Reduce and Eliminate Risk
These conditions are all life-threatening, which is why it’s important to be aware of prevention measures—and to take them. The ALA recommends some steps to take:
Stop Smoking. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that smoking causes and worsens each of the illnesses listed above and produces upwards of a half-million deaths per year.
Avoid Exposure to Indoor Pollutants. Secondhand smoke, chemicals in the home and workplace, and radon all can cause or worsen lung disease. Make your home and car smoke-free. Test your home for radon.
Minimize Exposure to Outdoor Air Pollution. Avoid exercising outdoors on bad-air days.
Prevent Infection. A cold or other respiratory infection can sometimes become very serious. There are several things you can do to protect yourself:
See your primary care physician regularly. Check-ups help prevent diseases, even when you are feeling well. This is especially true for lung disease, which sometimes goes undetected until it is serious. During a check-up, your healthcare provider will listen to your breathing and your concerns.
Exercise. Whether you are young or old, slender or large, able-bodied or living with a chronic illness or disability, being physically active can help keep your lungs healthy.
If you are a respiratory therapist, none of this is news to you—take advantage of this special week that calls attention to your field of expertise to educate those around you, both coworkers and patients, of the very real steps they can take to avoid respiratory illness.
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