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Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease is a Leading Cause of Death: Know the Signs and Symptoms.

Learn about Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease, which is the fourth leading cause of death, and signs to watch out for. 
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

We've all been sick and have experienced shortness of breath or a horrible cough that seemed like it would never go away. It's not fun, but imagine having a difficult time breathing and dealing with a long-lasting cough on a regular basis. Millions of people do and it's called Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease, which is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. "Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease, or CLRD, is a severe and often life-threatening condition that affects millions of people across the world," Dr. Tomi Mitchell, a Board-Certified Family Physician with Holistic Wellness Strategies tells us.

"Those with the disease usually suffer from a persistent cough and difficulty breathing due to constricted airways, making everyday activities much more difficult," Dr. Mitchell continues. "Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD) is an umbrella term for four primary chronic lung conditions involving long-term difficulty breathing. These three conditions are chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma."

Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease is a serious condition that can greatly affect quality of life. Daily activities, including routine and basic tasks, can be interrupted by fatigue, the feeling of not being able to catch your breath and reoccurring symptoms. There's a lot to know about CLRD and Dr. Mitchell shares what to know about the condition and signs that indicate you have the disease. As always, please consult your physician for medical advice. 


Why CLRD is a Leading Cause of Death


In any case, it's impairment of the respiratory system that eventually becomes fatal as the individual has difficulty breathing- often leading to oxygen deprivation and organ failure. The explanation is that our bodies rely on an adequate supply of oxygen to "fuel" vital processes such as digestion and circulation. As CLRD continues to weaken the respiratory system over time, these functions slowly decline until death eventually occurs. For this reason, CLRD is now certified as the fourth leading cause of death in many countries worldwide."


Risk Factors

no smoking sign

According to the American Lung Association, "Nearly 37 million Americans live with a chronic lung disease like asthma and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis." The West Virginia Health Statistic Health Center says, "Tobacco smoking is by far the most important risk factor for chronic bronchitis and emphysema, accounting for about 80% of all cases. The American Lung Association states that cigarette smokers are 10 times more likely to die of COPD than nonsmokers (5). Pipe and cigar smokers also have greater COPD morbidity and mortality than nonsmokers; however, their rates are lower than those for cigarette smokers (25). Other environmental exposures, i.e., occupational dusts and chemicals and indoor/outdoor air pollution, contribute to approximately 15% of COPD cases, with 5% due to genetic influences."

Dr. Mitchell says, "Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD) primarily affects adults. Individuals aged 65 and older, smokers, and people with underlying illnesses like heart disease or asthma are especially vulnerable to developing CLRD. The disease is caused by air pollution, occupational hazards, secondhand smoke, and viral infections.  People with weakened immune systems due to chronic medical conditions are susceptible to attack from bacteria, viruses, and fungi, which can also lead to the development of CLRD. Taking preventative measures such as avoiding exposure to possible risk factors and living a healthy lifestyle may reduce the chance of developing this serious condition."


Signs of Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease and What It Feels Like

Young woman suffering from breathing problem near window indoors.

Dr. Mitchell explains, "Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease is a fairly common yet serious illness characterized by recurrent and persistent symptoms. Sufferers often experience episodes of difficulty breathing, which can be accompanied by other symptoms such as a persistent cough, wheezing, persistent chest pain or pressure, fatigue, and loss of appetite. In more severe cases of chronic lower respiratory disease, the patient may experience reduced oxygen levels in the body due to a decreased airflow or thickening of lung tissue. It is important for sufferers to seek medical care to effectively manage their symptoms and reduce the risk of further complications.

Signs of CLRD include shortness of breath, chest tightness, persistent coughing with phlegm, wheezing, and difficulty breathing during physical activity. In some cases, fatigue and unintentional weight loss may also be present. If you are experiencing any or all of these symptoms for an extended period, you must consult your primary care physician for further evaluation and treatment."


Chronic Bronchitis

Young woman sitting alone on her sofa at home and coughing.

Dr. Mitchell tells us, "Chronic bronchitis is a severe and long-term lung disease caused by inhalation of irritants such as dust, chemical fumes, or smoke. It often manifests as a persistent cough and excess mucus production, limiting the oxygen delivered to the lungs. People with chronic bronchitis experience difficulty breathing, shortness of breath, and increased chest infections, leading to disability and even death if not properly managed. 

Treatment may consist of inhaled medications, physical therapies, and lifestyle adjustments, such as avoiding triggers that cause irritation or inflammation in the lungs. With proper medical management and adherence to the prescribed treatment plan, individuals living with chronic bronchitis can manage their symptoms and even enjoy relative health for an extended period."



Woman touching her heart while sitting at the table in her big office.

Dr. Mitchell states, "Emphysema is a severe lung condition that affects the air sacs, or alveoli, in the lungs. It occurs when these air sacs are damaged, reducing their ability to hold oxygen and expel carbon dioxide effectively. As emphysema progresses, it can cause shortness of breath and difficulty breathing due to an inability to exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide adequately. 

Emphysema that occurs in conjunction with chronic bronchitis is called Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD). The leading causes of COPD include smoking, air pollution, and occupational exposures such as dust and chemicals. Early diagnosis is key for managing emphysema since the condition cannot be reversed. Treatment focuses on helping a person manage symptoms so they can enjoy a good quality of life, but ultimately prevention is the most effective way of avoiding this deadly illness."



man using asthma machine at home.

The American Lung Association states, "Asthma makes breathing difficult for more than 25 million Americans, including over 6 million children. While there is no cure, asthma can be managed and treated, helping those with the disease lead a healthier life. Through Asthma Basics, we share a comprehensive and clear overview of asthma and a full suite of tools and resources for those living with asthma, their caregivers, families and healthcare professionals."

Dr. Mitchell says, "Asthma is a chronic condition characterized by symptoms of coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, and shortness of breath. It happens when the airways in the lungs become constricted due to chronic inflammation, leading to difficulty breathing. The severity of asthmatic symptoms can range from mild to severe, and asthmatics may experience flare-ups triggered by external factors such as pollution, dust and pollen particles in the air, cold weather, or exercise. Individuals with asthma need to work with their doctor on an effective treatment plan that includes some combination of avoiding triggers, use of medications, and monitoring for asthma attacks. With proper care and management, individuals with asthma can continue leading active and fulfilling lives."


How to Help Lower the Risk of CLRD

Couple of female friends jogging on the city street under the city road overpass.They relaxing after jogging and making fun.Embracing each other. Walkers

Dr. Mitchell emphasizes, "Chronic Lower Respiratory Disease (CLRD) is a severe health issue that should be taken with caution and mindfulness. Thankfully, there are several steps one can take to help lower the risk of developing CLRD. Primarily, avoiding exposure to pollutants such as secondhand smoke, radon gas, asbestos fibers, and indoor/outdoor air pollutants is essential. 

Furthermore, individuals should regularly exercise to stay fit and healthy, which can also help prevent CLRD. Finally, some medications, such as inhaled steroids, can help reduce swelling in the airways, decreasing the risk of lung damage from CLRD. Focusing on preventive measures like these can greatly reduce their chance of developing this potentially dangerous disease."

Heather Newgen
Heather Newgen has two decades of experience reporting and writing about health, fitness, entertainment and travel. Heather currently freelances for several publications. Read more about Heather
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