There are several different types of lungs problems but all affect lung function to some degree. This means that the movement of air through the lungs and the exchange of gases are impaire to some degree. As a result, there are many common symptoms in most of these lungs conditions, whether it is an infection like pneumonia or lung cancer. The outlook for these conditions can be drastically improved with early treatment. Therefore it is important to identify these signs and symptoms and seek medical attention as soon as possible.
What are lung problems?
Lung problems refers to any disorder or disease that affects lung function. Usually this includes the lowest parts of the airways – the bronchi and bronchioles. These ‘tubes’ allows for gases to pass into and out of the lungs. Therefore diseases of the bronchi and bronchioles often affect the lungs and vice versa. The type of lung problem can vary. Some conditions cause inflammation of the lungs, others causes hardening of lung tissue or abnormal growths.
Irrespective of the type of lung problem, the function of the lung is always affected to some degree. The lungs are vital organs. Therefore if lung function is significantly compromised then it can lead to death. Some conditions are acute. It arises suddenly and often resolves as quickly, either with or without treatment. Other conditions are chronic and can persist for months, years or even a lifetime. Most chronic conditions progressively worsen over time.
Signs and Symptoms of Lung Problems
It is often difficult to differentiate between airway and lung problems solely by the sign and symptoms that are present. It is therefore important to consult with a medical professional and undergo the necessary diagnostic investigations. However, the following signs and symptoms may be the easiest to spot and can help with identifying a possible problem in the early stages.
A cough is the body’s way of trying to remove irritants out of the airways or lungs. There are tiny receptors known as pulmonary irritant receptors which trigger the cough reflex when stimulated. Sometimes these receptors are triggered by legitimate irritants or threats. However, it can also be triggered prematurely when there are diseases of the airways or lungs. Coughing then arises.
A cough can be characterized as a wet cough (productive cough) or dry cough (non-productive cough). This simply means that there is mucus production in a productive cough whereas there is little to no mucus in a dry cough. The mucus that is exporated is known as sputum or phlegm. The mucus can vary in color which can provide some clue to a possible cause. Sometimes there is coughing up of blood which is known as hemoptysis.
There are various degrees of breathing difficulty in most lung problems. This is known as dyspnea. In some conditions there is only shortness of breath after vigorous activity, which is referred to as dyspnea on exertion. In other conditions the difficulty breathing is present all of the time, even at rest and only worsened with physical activity. This is known as dyspnea at rest and usually signals a more severe condition.
The shortness of breath may also be present only in certain positions. For example, orthopnea is the medical term for breathlessness when lying flat which is relieved with sitting or standing up. The opposite is platypnea which is breathlessness that occurs when standing up but is relieved with lying down. Paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea (PND) is difficulty breathing that occurs after 1 to 2 hours of lying down but is relieved with sitting or standing up.
Read more on difficulty breathing.
Abnormal Breathing Sounds
Another sign of respiratory diseases is abnormal breathing sounds. It may not always arise from the lungs. Sometimes airway problems can also cause these abnormal breathing sounds. A wheeze is a type of whistling sound that is usually louder when exhaling than when inhaling. Another type of abnormal breathings ound is a stridor which is a high pitched sound that is heard with inspiration.
Rhonchi are low-pitched breathing sounds that may be heard when inhaling or exhaling. Most of these sound occur with airway diseases but can also occur in lung problems. Crackles (also known as rales) is a crinkling type of sound that is more common with lung conditions. When speech or a whisper can be heard loudly with a stethoscope are known as bronchophony or whispered petriloquoy, respectively. Along with decreased breathing sounds, these are signs of lung problems.
Read more on abnormal breathing sounds.
Abnormal Breathing Patterns
Most people breathe in an out about 12 to 20 times a minute. Naturally the breathing rate increases with physical exertion or emotional stress but for short periods. Similarly the breathing rate may decrease when asleep. However, in lung problems there can be constant abnormalities in the breathing rate. It may either be too fast or too slow, and in some conditions it can even stop for short periods of time.
Tachypnes is a rapid breathing rate meaning that a person is breathing faster than normal. Bradypnea means that a person is breating slower than normal. Apnea is where breathing stops. Hyperpnea is where a person is usually breathing deeper but not necessarily faster. Hyperventilation is where the breathing is abnormal to the point that too much carbon dioxide is expelled from the body which throws of the gas balance in the bloodstream.
Paleness or Bluish Skin Discoloration
Skin color is in part due to the reddish hue from blood flowing in the superficial blood vessels. This redness of the skin can be affected by the oxygen levels in the bloodstream. When there are lung problems that impairs proper oxygenation of the blood then this can affect the skin color. This may be seen as paleness of the skin.
The medical term for this paleness is pallor. If blood oxygenation is severely compromised then there may be a bluish discoloration of the skin. It may sometimes be most visible in the extremities like the hands and feet or of the lips. This bluish tinge is known as cyanosis and is a very serious sign.
Read more on skin paleness.
Other Signs and Symptoms
A host of other signs and symptoms may also be evident. This includes:
- Fatigue and/or malaise
- Chest wall deformities
- Clubbing of the fingers
- Abnormalities of the fingernails