There are many types of respiratory diseases, such as COPD, asthma, and obstructive sleep apnea. Smoking and exposure to certain substances are common risk factors.

Respiratory diseases are conditions that affect the tissues involved in breathing, which include your lungs and airways.

Chronic, or long lasting, respiratory diseases are common throughout the world. In fact, researchers have estimated that 544.9 million people worldwide had a chronic respiratory disease in 2017.

Some examples of chronic respiratory diseases are COPD and asthma. This article explores the symptoms, causes, and treatments of these and several other common respiratory diseases.

Respiratory diseases are a frequent cause of health problems and death across the globe. We review some of the more common types below.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD happens when your airways and lungs become damaged, making it harder to breathe. It can cause symptoms like:

Researchers have estimated that about 480 million people around the world had COPD in 2020. It’s the third leading cause of death across the globe, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

COPD can refer to two conditions:

  • emphysema, which happens due to damage to the tiny air sacs in the lungs, affecting your ability to move air in and out of your body
  • chronic bronchitis, which leads to persistent inflammation or irritation of the airways and the formation of thick mucus

Several factors can contribute to COPD. Examples include things like smoking, air pollution, and occupational exposures. There’s no cure for COPD, but you can manage symptoms with:


Asthma is a respiratory disease that leads to inflammation that causes the muscles of the airways to tighten. This can make it harder to breathe, leading to symptoms like:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • tight chest

The WHO estimates that 262 million people around the world had asthma in 2019. Its exact cause is unknown but is more likely to occur in people with:

For some, asthma attacks can be serious and can be fatal. Doctors prescribe medications that help relax the airways, making breathing easier, to treat asthma. These medications are typically given via an inhaler.

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA)

OSA is a condition where your breathing stops periodically while you’re asleep. This can prevent your body from getting enough oxygen and can lead to symptoms like:

Researchers have estimated that close to 1 billion people worldwide have OSA. It happens due to conditions that block the airways during sleep. It’s more common with older age, obesity, or a family history of OSA.

OSA is linked to a higher risk of a variety of other health problems, including:

It’s most often treated with a CPAP device that helps keep airways open as you sleep.

Pulmonary hypertension

Pulmonary hypertension happens when the blood pressure in the blood vessels of your lungs is too high. It can lead to serious health problems, like blood clots, heart failure, and arrythmias. Its symptoms include things like:

According to a 2020 article, experts estimate that between 50 and 70 million people have pulmonary hypertension worldwide. Its cause isn’t always known, but some medical conditions like heart failure, lung disease, and blood clots can contribute.

The treatment of pulmonary hypertension can include:

Interstitial lung disease (ILD)

ILD refers to a group of conditions that can cause scarring, called fibrosis, in the lungs. When scar tissue forms in the lungs, it can stiffen lung tissue and make it harder to breathe. Common symptoms of ILD include:

  • shortness of breath
  • dry cough
  • chest pain
  • fatigue

Some research estimates that 2.28 million people worldwide were living with ILD in 2019. Many causes of ILD remain unknown. Known causes include:

There’s no cure for ILD. Treatment includes medications like corticosteroids to lower inflammation in the lungs as well as oxygen therapy and pulmonary rehabilitation. Doctors may recommend a lung transplant in very severe situations.

Lung cancer

Lung cancer is when cancer begins in your lungs. It can cause symptoms like:

Lung cancer is the second most common cancer worldwide, with 2.2 million new diagnoses being made in 2020. It also causes the highest percentage of cancer deaths worldwide: In 2020, 18% of cancer deaths occurred due to lung cancer.

Smoking is the main risk factor for lung cancer and is estimated to cause 85% of all lung cancers. Other risk factors include:

Lung cancer treatment depends on the type and stage of the cancer. It may include one or a combination of:

Occupational lung diseases

Occupational lung diseases are those that occur due to workplace exposures to harmful substances. Some examples of occupational lung diseases include:

Workplace exposures can damage your lungs and make it hard to breathe, causing symptoms like:

  • persistent cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • increased production of mucus or phlegm

Researchers estimate there were 519,000 deaths worldwide due to occupationally acquired lung diseases in 2016. Certain occupations are at a higher risk of occupational lung diseases, such as those in mining, farming, and the military.

Treatment of occupational lung diseases can depend on the type of lung disease. It may involve medications, oxygen therapy, pulmonary rehabilitation, or a lung transplant.

Other respiratory diseases

Other examples of chronic respiratory diseases that are less common include:

There are also a variety of acute (short lasting) respiratory conditions. These include pulmonary embolism, collapsed lung, and infections that can cause a variety of respiratory problems, like:

Specific risk factors can vary depending on the type of respiratory disease. However, many respiratory diseases share some risk factors.

Smoking is a major risk factor for COPD and lung cancer. It’s also a risk factor for OSA and pulmonary hypertension. Smoking can also trigger asthma attacks or make an asthma attack worse.

Exposure to a variety of hazardous substances can also increase the risk of respiratory conditions like COPD, asthma, ILD, occupational lung disease, and lung cancer. Examples of hazardous substances can include:

  • secondhand smoke
  • air pollution
  • radon
  • asbestos
  • silica
  • coal dust
  • fungal spores
  • animal droppings

Some other health conditions increase the risk of respiratory diseases. For example, obesity increases the risk of OSA. Allergic conditions can increase a person’s risk of asthma.

There’s no surefire way to prevent respiratory diseases. However, there are some steps you can take to reduce your risk:

Chronic respiratory diseases are a major cause of health problems and death across the world. Some of the most common respiratory diseases include COPD, asthma, and obstructive sleep apnea.

Many respiratory diseases have common risk factors. like smoking and exposure to hazardous substances. Taking steps to avoid these things as well as following healthy lifestyle strategies can help you reduce your risk of respiratory diseases.