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Respiratory System Diseases Medical Terminology

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Acquaintance with the medical terminology with regard to the most common respiratory system diseases is an important aspect of health literacy. It can aid in recognizing the need for professional evaluation. Prompt actions based on a recognized need can prevent undesirable consequences and promote better health care outcomes. 

Medical Terminology  

Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS) – Is a condition in which the lungs are diffusely inflamed and filled with fluid.  It usually develops suddenly over a time frame of one week or less. The basic pathology is the breakdown of the alveolar capillary membrane.  Fluid fills the alveoli as it leaks from the capillaries. This impairs gas exchange; hypoxemia results due to V/Q mismatch ± intrapulmonary shunt.  

It is not a single specific disease, but has many causes.  One cause is any insult leading to shock, for which reason it also bears the name shock lung.  Extensive burn injuries, severe acute pancreatitis, sepsis, and massive trauma are but a few of some of the other causes.  If not promptly treated it results in death about 90% of the time.  Even with prompt treatment the death rate is roughly 50%.

The providing of oxygen (O2) is one of the cornerstones of treatment.  If O2 via a mask is not sufficient to raise blood O2 levels mechanical ventilation might be required. 

Acute bronchitis – Is a non-chronic inflammation of the airways of the lungs. The cause is an infectious agent. The infection is usually bacterial but can be viral. Antibiotics are the treatment if the cause is bacterial. 

Asthma – It is a chronic inflammatory disease of the airways of the lungs leading to their constriction. Restricted airflow caused by the inflammation results in wheezing and shortness of breath. The inflammation is not due to infection. In many instances it appears to be allergy based.

Bronchiectasis –Is a condition in which the airways of the lungs are damaged, scarred and permanently enlarged. The structural abnormalities cause mucus build up and a productive cough. The initial damage is usually an infection such as pneumonia or TB but other things such as a foreign body, cystic fibrosis and malfunction of the immune system can cause it. Because of the loss of the hair cells which normally line the airways, individuals with this condition have difficulty clearing mucus from their lungs. This can result in recurring infections. Because of a state of chronic inflammation of the walls of the involved airways and mucus buildup which obstructs airflow, bronchiectasis is a form of COPD.  

Bullous emphysema – Is emphysema with a single or multiple large air-filled bullae. A bulla is a thin walled air filled space in lung tissue. Bullae can rupture and lead to a pneumothorax.

Chronic bronchitis – Is a form of COPD consisting of chronic inflammation of the airways of the lungs. Additionally, there is increased sputum production and constriction of the airways. Because of the increased sputum a chronic productive cough is frequently associated with it. The airway constriction causes wheezing. The restricted airflow causes shortness of breath.

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) – It is a condition of chronic inflammation respiratory system diseasesand constriction of the airways of the lungs, and/or destruction of the air sacs at the end of the small airways. It is usually associated with chronic tobacco smoking. The most common forms are chronic bronchitis and emphysema, but in many instances individuals with COPD have mixed disease with signs and symptoms of both. Shortness of breath is a common symptom regardless of the form of the disease.  

Cor pulmonale – Is a change in the structure and function of the right ventricle caused by a primary disorder of the respiratory system. The most common cause is COPD. Individuals with it frequently have right sided heart failure.  

Emphysema – Is a form of COPD in which there is destruction to or damage of the alveoli. The walls of the alveoli contain elastic tissue which is necessary for expansion of the structures during inhalation and recoil during exhalation. Because of damage and destruction of the elastic tissue the lung loses some of its natural recoil necessary for exhalation. As a result, air trapping occurs and many individuals develop a barrel shaped chest. Doctors refer to the latter as an increased AP diameter. AP means anterior to posterior.  

Hemothorax – The accumulation of blood in the pleural space. It may cause lung collapse, depending on the amount of blood accumulation. It most commonly results from trauma to the chest. Chest surgery, cancer and pulmonary infarction are other causes.  

Hydrothorax – Synonymous for pleural effusion.   

Interstitial lung disease (ILD) – Is a broad group of lung diseases affecting the lung interstitium.  It can consist of inflammation, fibrosis (tissue scarring), fluid buildup and/or a combination of the three. It might involve various parts of the tissue lattice, but can involve the very small airways (bronchioles) as well.  There are many causes, but oftentimes the cause is unknown.    

Obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) – Is a condition in which breathing ceases for ten seconds or more at a frequency of five times per hour or greater. Individuals with it oftentimes experience disturbed sleep, excessive daytime sleepiness, fatigue, and inattention. Upper airway obstruction is the underlying mechanism. The obstruction can be due to neck enlargement, enlarged tongue, enlarged tonsils and adenoids or nasal obstruction. Most people with it are obese. Many individuals with it snore while sleeping. An apnea/hypoxia index (AHI) of greater than 15 per hour during polysomnography confirms the diagnosis, even in the absence of symptoms. CPAP or BiPAP and weight reduction are common nonsurgical methods of treating it. Obstructive sleep apnea differs from central sleep apnea in that the latter is not associated with airway obstruction. It appears to be a result of abnormal nerve signals from the brain that control the muscles of respiration.

Pleural effusion – Fluid accumulation in the pleural space, sometimes referred to as “water on the lungs.” There are many causes including those associated with pleurisy. It can also accompany congestive heart failure, particularly if the fluid buildup is on the right side.

Pleurisy – Inflammation of the pleura. Infection, injury, abnormalities of the immune system, cancer and various medications are some of the common causes.

PneumoconiosisIs not a specific disease.  It is a group of many different lung diseases linked to occupation.  Lengthy exposure to dust or other air particles in the workplace is the cause.  Some of the more common ones are:

  • asbestosis
  • silicosis
  • coworkers pneumoconiosis
  • berylliosis
  • byssinosis 

Pneumonia – Infection of the lung parenchyma. Various infectious organisms can cause it, but the most common ones are bacteria and viruses. Other possible causes are fungi and parasites. In addition to treatment of the infection it might require supplemental oxygen if there is associated hypoxia.

Pneumothorax – Collapse of a portion of or an entire lung as a result of the accumulation of air in the pleural space. Treatment oftentimes requires the insertion of a chest tube to remove the excess air and allow the lung to re-expand.

Pulmonary edema – It is the buildup of fluid in the air sacs and tissue between the air sacs of the lung. It is commonly the result of congestive heart failure. Other causes are fluid overload, smoke inhalation, overwhelming infection, shock, and drowning, only to mention a few. It can be associated with respiratory failure and might require mechanical ventilation.

Pulmonary embolism – Is the blockage of the main artery of one or both lungs or one of the branches. The most common cause is a blood clot.

Pulmonary embolus – A blood clot blocking the main artery to one or both lungs or one of the branches resulting in decreased oxygen in the blood stream. The clot most frequently originates in a deep vein of one of the lower extremities or the pelvis. It can be life-threatening, particularly if the decrease in oxygen is considerable or it is associated with a significant drop in blood pressure. It requires hospitalization and treatment with a blood thinner. Predisposing factors include extended bed rest, obesity, some forms of cancer, breaking a bone and decreased mobility.

Pulmonary infarct – Dead lung tissue caused by the disruption of blood flow due to pulmonary embolism.

Pulmonary infarction – Is the death of lung tissue due to pulmonary embolism.

Pulmonary fibrosis – Is scarring of lung tissue. It is the result of the body’s attempt to repair or replace damaged or destroyed alveoli. Various inflammatory diseases of the lung can cause it but oftentimes the cause is unknown. A minority of the time it appears to be the aftermath of a poorly understood acute inflammatory condition, previously called Hammond Rich syndrome; the current name for it is usual interstitial pneumonia.

Pulmonary hypertension – Is a disorder in which the divisions of the pulmonary arteries which convey blood from the right side of the heart through the lungs are narrow and/or constricted due to spasm. The drop in blood flow to alveoli causes decreased oxygen exchange and resultant shortness of breath. The narrowing ± constriction of the blood vessels causes pressure within them to rise. The elevated pressure in turn leads to fluid backup into the right side of the heart.  The latter can result in right-sided heart failure. According to the most recent classification system devised by the World Health Organization (WHO) there are 5 groups of pulmonary hypertension based on their causes.    

Idiopathic pulmonary hypertension is the name for the disorder when the cause is unknown. It now belongs to WHO group 1 pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH).  Its previous name was primary pulmonary hypertension.

Respiratory failure – Is a state in which the respiratory system fails to deliver enough oxygen to the body, remove enough carbon dioxide from the body, or both. Hypoxemic respiratory failure is the inability to provide enough oxygen. A partial pressure of oxygen of less than 60 mmHg during arterial blood gas analysis confirms it. Hypercapneic respiratory failure is inability to expel enough carbon dioxide. A partial pressure of carbon dioxide during ABG analysis confirms it. It usually requires mechanical ventilation. Various diseases of the heart and lungs can cause either form.

Restrictive lung disease – Is one of the many diseases restricting the lungs’ ability to expand. It results in diminished lung volume, increased work of breathing and inadequate ventilation or oxygenation. Disease affecting the chest wall, pleura, lung interstitium, or the nerves and muscles which control breathing can cause it

Sarcoidosis – A poorly understood condition in which granulomas, nodular tissue masses consisting of a mixture of immune system cells, form in the lungs and various other tissues of the body. Its cause is unknown. Pulmonary sarcoidosis oftentimes does not cause any symptoms, but might be associated with chronic dry cough and/or shortness of breath.

Sarcoid – Is synonymous with sarcoidosis. 

Tuberculosis (TB) – Is not strictly a disease of the lungs in that it can involve various tissues of the body. It is mainly an infection of the lung though, caused by a bacterial microorganism, Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Pulmonary tuberculosis symptoms include a productive cough, a feeling of fatigue, night sweats, loss of appetite, weight loss and a low-grade fever. It is a very contagious disease, but can be cured and prevented with proper treatment.

Upper respiratory tract infection (URI) – Upper respiratory tract infection is a nonspecific term referring to infection of the upper portion of the respiratory tract. It can include the nose, pharynx, larynx and trachea. It can be due to bacteria or viruses. The most common URI is the common cold. Some consider the sinuses part of the upper respiratory tract, and thus include sinusitis as a form of URI. Since the sinuses are not involved in respiration though, it is more appropriate to not include them as part of the respiratory tract. Thus, it is also more appropriate to not consider sinusitis as a URI. Influenza (flu) is a more severe form of URI which is also systemic It is caused by the influenza virus, and is characterized by chills, fever, fatigue, body aches and dry hacking cough.








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