Diseases of the Respiratory System

Asthma is a disease caused by bronchoconstriction and chronic swelling of the airways in the respiratory system. The word “asthma” is an ancient Greek word meaning “to gasp, pant or draw a short breath.” This swelling causes a blockage of air flow to the lungs and can cause spasms in the muscles of the bronchioles, making it more difficult to breathe. Seven percent of the population of the United States have asthma, and 300,000,000 people worldwide are affected.

Cause: Asthma can be caused by genetics or by factors in the environment, like air pollution and recurrent respiratory infections in childhood. Stress and respiratory infections can also trigger asthma.

Symptoms: Coughing, wheezing, not getting enough air and tightness in the chest are the symptoms of an asthma attack. During severe attacks, people can turn blue from lack of oxygen and pass out. Untreated asthma can be life-threatening.

Treatment: One treatment is the use of inhalers that relax the bronchioles in the lungs leading to better air flow. These inhalers are called bronchodilators and are used for treating an asthma attack. Other inhalers that contain steroids, to reduce the inflammation in the bronchioles, are used to help prevent asthma attacks. People with asthma should also avoid allergens and sharp temperature changes, which can trigger attacks.


Emphysema is a condition that causes shortness of breath because damaged tissue in the lungs cannot support breathing. In emphysema, the balloons of the alveoli do not recoil appropriately helping air to be exhaled from the lungs.

Cause: A genetic mutation can cause emphysema, but the most common cause is smoking. People can also develop symptoms of emphysema as a normal part of aging.

Symptoms: Wheezing and shortness of breath are symptoms of emphysema. At first, symptoms may only occur during mild exercise, but they can become constant as the disease progresses.

Treatment: The only cure for emphysema is a lung transplant, but patients can be treated with oxygen or medicines, like steroids, that open up the airways. Some surgeries can also be performed to remove parts of the damaged tissue, or to place little valves in the lung passages.