What Is Chronic Lung Disease?

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What Is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)?

There are three kinds of chronic lung disease: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, interstitial lung disease, and non-tuberculous mycobacterial disease (NTM).

As a caregiver of a person with COPD, you need to understand the changes that take place, not only in the lungs but the rest of the body. You want the person to maintain her independence but at the same time make sure she is taking care of herself, using medications appropriately, and using oxygen as the doctor prescribed. She also needs to know when to call the doctor.

Think of the lungs like an upside-down tree, with the windpipe (trachea) being the trunk, the bronchial tubes the branches, and the air sacs as the leaves. We have millions of these tiny air sacs, and this is the reason a lot of damage can be done before a person notices problems with her breathing.

What is bronchitis? A person with COPD may have either emphysema or bronchitis, but most have both. Some people with COPD may also have symptoms similar to asthma. In chronic bronchitis the damage is in the breathing tubes (bronchial tubes). They become inflamed and swollen, and large amounts of mucus are produced, making it difficult to get air in and out of the lungs.

What is emphysema? In emphysema there is damage to the walls of the air sacs in the lungs, so they're not able to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream to nourish the body as well as the healthy sacs can. The lungs lose their ability to stretch, producing shortness of breath during activity. You can also think of the air sacs like balloons that have been inflated and deflated many times, causing them to lose their elasticity, which results in stale air being trapped in the lungs. Over time, the lungs become larger, which decreases their function.

About one in 50 cases of emphysema is inherited. This inherited cause of COPD is called Alpha-1 (Alpha1 antitrypsin deficiency). People with Alpha-1 don’t have enough of a major protein in their blood, which can lead to lung problems.

What is non-tuberculous mycobacterial disease (NTM)? Mycobacteria are a group of germs that can cause disease. Tuberculosis is caused by one type of mycobacteria, and it is highly contagious. NTM is similar to tuberculosis, but it cannot be passed from one person to another.

What Is interstitial lung disease (ILD)? ILD is actually a broad category of lung diseases that affect the tissue in the lungs around the air sacs and blood vessels. These parts of the lung become inflamed or scarred, which leads to problems with getting oxygen out of the air and into the bloodstream.


Maria M. Meyer and Paula Derr, with Mary Gilmartin

Maria M. See full bio