The aim of this guide is to provide an overview of the most common problems that affect the lungs. These range from the non-serious and self-limiting such as the common cold, through chronic conditions such as emphysema and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to advanced lung cancer and life-threatening lung injury and respiratory distress. 

Some background on respiratory problems

The guide begins with an overview of lung function so you can gain a better understanding of common diseases and provides an introduction to why so many lung problems produce the symptoms of coughing and breathlessness. 

An introduction to lung function

We look at how the lungs work normally and the mechanisms that keep the lungs healthy. Being able to breathe easily is something that we often take for granted, but finding out more about the way your lungs work may make you think twice the next time you take a deep breath. 

What causes coughing and breathlessness?

Coughing and breathlessness are common symptoms of many lung diseases. Coughing is a reflex action that protects the lungs by getting rid of mucus and inhaled debris. Most people experience coughing regularly, but persistent coughs can be a sign of something more serious. Breathlessness at rest or when only doing light activity is a sign that the lungs or the airways are not able to function as they should. Severe shortage of breath can be a medical emergency. Read more about the causes of coughing and breathlessness… 

Common lung problems 

Asthma – a common breathing problem

Around five million of us in the UK experience asthma attacks due to our airways being oversensitive to particles that we breathe in. Common triggers that can lead to an asthma attack include house dust mite faeces, pollen and mould spores. Keeping asthma under control can mean avoiding triggers where possible, but it more usually involves medical treatment. Drugs delivered through an inhaler can help ease symptoms during an attack, or can prevent attacks by reducing the inflammatory response in the airways. Read more about asthma…

Sleep apnoea and snoring

Snoring is an annoyance, particularly for a partner and the rest of the family. It can also be a sign that someone is at risk of sleep apnoea, which can be more than annoying. Snorers who stop breathing for a few seconds at a time, perhaps hundreds of times a night, are risking damage to their lungs and heart. Obesity is a major risk factor, so losing weight can help, and specific treatments are available to reduce daytime tiredness until the problem starts to subside. Read more about sleep apnoea and snoring…

Bacterial and fungal lung infections

Bacterial infections can develop in the upper respiratory tract and in the lungs. Bacterial pneumonia is one of the most common, killing over 1.5 million children each year worldwide. Tuberculosis is also a major bacterial lung infection, and is estimated to be present in two billion people in the world today. Fungal lung infections are rarer, but they can be serious in people whose immune system is not working properly because of HIV infection or immunosuppressant therapy. Read more about bacterial and fungal lung infections…

Viral lung infections and viral pneumonia

Most viral infections that affect the respiratory tract stay in the upper regions, the nose and throat. Some viruses can infect lung tissue, including some strains of the influenza virus, some herpes and varicella viruses, and other rarer viruses such as the respiratory syncytial virus and the SARS coronavirus. Viral infection in the lungs is known as viral pneumonia. This is usually not as serious as bacterial pneumonia, but the very young and the very old, and people with a compromised immune system are often affected more seriously. Read more about viral lung infections and viral pneumonia…

Chronic lung disease

Sarcoidosis – what is it?

Sarcoidosis is a lung disease caused by an auto-immune response. It causes the formation of granulomas, fleshy growths, in the lung tissue and in other organs. Around 90% of people who have sarcoidosis have problems with their lungs, but this may or may not cause symptoms. Some people recover without ever knowing they have had the disease. Others need treatment with steroids, but usually make a full recovery within a couple of years. Read more about sarcoidosis…

Emphysema – an irreversible lung disease

Emphysema can occur on its own, or in combination with bronchitis in COPD. This chronic lung disease develops because of fibrosis of the lung tissue. Healthy air sacs and tiny airways are replaced by scar tissue, which severely reduces the ability of the lung to perform its main function: gas exchange. The most common cause of emphysema in the UK is smoking; if someone with mild emphysema can stop smoking, further lung damage can be limited and treatments can be far more effective. Read more about emphysema…

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a degenerative lung disease that results from a combination of emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It results from widespread lung damage and can lead to severe breathlessness, a persistent cough, and the tendency to go down with repeated lung infections, which can make the lung damage worse. Treatments aim to prevent further damage and to reduce the impact of symptoms. Read more about COPD…

What is cystic fibrosis (CF)?

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disease that is present from birth. It is caused by a fault in a gene that carries the code for a protein that sits in the membrane of the lining of the lungs and intestine. This protein controls how much water passes into the mucus in the lungs and the intestine, which sounds insignificant but is hugely important. If the mucus is thick and sticky instead of clear and runny, the lungs become clogged and prone to infection, and the pancreatic duct that leads to the intestine can become blocked. Cystic fibrosis therefore leads to severe and sometimes life-threatening lung problems and digestive difficulties. Read more about cystic fibrosis…

Serious lung disease

Lung cancer – diagnosis and treatment

Primary lung cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers in the world. It used to be extremely rare, but the adoption of smoking as a habit led to a huge increase in cases from the 1930s. In countries in the West, smoking cessation campaigns are helping to reduce risk and cases are likely to fall. However, the rate of lung cancer in developing countries and middle income countries is still increasing as smoking gains popularity. Read more about lung cancer…

Lung emergencies – how are they treated?

Many lung problems are serious but some are urgent and need emergency medical help. A collapsed lung, known medically as a pneumothorax, often needs surgical repair, or at least a procedure to extract the excess air in the pleural cavity that is stopping the lung from expanding. A blood clot in one of the arteries that leads to the lungs needs urgent treatment by drugs to thin the blood and reduce the size of the clot, so that the pulmonary embolism does not damage large amounts of lung tissue. Any blockage in the throat or airway, particularly when it occurs in children, is often a reason for visiting A&E. Read more about lung emergencies…



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