When you think of chronic lung disease, you may think of lung cancer, but there are many different types. These types of lung diseases may affect your airways, lung tissues, or circulation of blood in and out of your lungs.

Not including lung cancer, chronic lung diseases accounted for more than 150,000 deaths in the United States in 2020 and almost 4 million worldwide in 2017.

Here are the most common types of chronic lung disease, their causes and risk factors, and potential symptoms that may signal the need for medical attention.

Asthma is one of the most common types of chronic lung disease. When triggered, your lungs become swollen and narrow, making it harder to breathe. Symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • being unable to take in enough air
  • coughing
  • feeling tightness in your chest

If you experience these symptoms, it’s important to see a doctor right away. Triggers may include:

  • allergens
  • dust
  • pollution
  • stress
  • exercise

Asthma usually starts in childhood, though it can begin later. It cannot be cured, but medications can help manage symptoms. The disease affects about 25 million people in the United States and tends to run in families.

Most people with asthma can manage it fine and enjoy full and healthy lives. Without treatment, though, the disease can be deadly. It kills about 4,100 people annually in the United States.

Doctors do not know why some people get asthma and others do not. But they believe that genetics play a large role. If someone in your family has it, your risk goes up.

Other risk factors include:

  • having allergies
  • being overweight
  • smoking
  • being exposed frequently to pollutants
  • being born prematurely of having a low birth weight
  • having eczema
  • having sinus disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a chronic lung disease in which your lungs become inflamed, making breathing more difficult.

The inflammation leads to an overproduction of mucus and a thickening of the lining of your lungs. The air sacs, or alveoli, become less efficient at bringing oxygen in and sending carbon dioxide out.

COPD is an incurable, progressive disease most often caused by smoking, though it also has a powerful genetic component. Other risk factors include:

  • exposure to secondhand smoke
  • air pollution
  • occupational exposure to dust, fumes, and smoke

Symptoms of COPD get worse over time. However, treatments can help slow its progression.

People with COPD typically have emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or both.


Emphysema damages the air sacs in your lungs. When healthy, the air sacs are strong and flexible. Emphysema weakens them and eventually causes some to rupture.

Symptoms of emphysema include:

Chronic bronchitis

You may have experienced bronchitis when you had a cold or sinus infection. Chronic bronchitis is more serious, as it never goes away. It causes inflammation of the bronchial tubes in your lungs, increasing mucus production.

Symptoms of chronic bronchitis include:

  • frequent coughing
  • coughing up mucus
  • shortness of breath
  • chest tightness

You have chronic bronchitis if symptoms have persisted for 2 years or more and you’ve had at least 3 months where you’ve coughed up mucus.

Many different lung diseases fit under the umbrella term “interstitial lung disease.” Interstitial lung diseases include over 200 types of lung disorders. A few examples are:

The same thing happens with all of these diseases: The tissue in your lungs becomes scarred, inflamed, and stiff. Scar tissue develops in the interstitium, which is the space in your lungs between the air sacs.

As the scarring spreads, it makes your lungs more rigid, so they’re unable to expand and contract as easily as they once did. Symptoms include:

  • a dry cough
  • shortness of breath
  • difficulty breathing

You may be more at risk if someone in your family had one of these diseases, if you smoke, or if you’re exposed to asbestos or other inflammatory pollutants.

Some autoimmune diseases have also been linked to interstitial lung disease, including rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and Sjögren’s syndrome.

Other risk factors include going through radiation for cancer treatments and taking some medications, like antibiotics and prescription heart pills.

These diseases are incurable, but newer treatments hold promise for slowing their progression.

Pulmonary hypertension is simply high blood pressure in your lungs. Unlike regular high blood pressure, which affects all the blood vessels in your body, pulmonary hypertension affects only those blood vessels between your heart and lungs.

The most common cause of pulmonary hypertension is heart disease.

These blood vessels become narrowed and sometimes blocked, as well as stiff and thick. Your heart has to work harder and push the blood more forcefully, which increases the blood pressure in lung arteries and capillaries.

Gene mutations, drugs, and congenital heart diseases can all cause pulmonary hypertension. Other lung diseases, like interstitial lung disease and COPD, may also cause it. If left untreated, the condition can lead to complications like blood clots, arrhythmia, and heart failure.

Risk factors for pulmonary hypertension include:

  • being overweight
  • having a family history of the disease
  • having heart disease
  • having another lung disease
  • using illegal drugs
  • taking certain medications, like appetite-suppressant drugs

Symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • chest pain
  • dizziness
  • fatigue
  • rapid heart rate
  • edema (swelling) in your ankles

This disease cannot be cured, but treatments can help lower the pressure to a more typical level. Options include medications, such as blood thinners, diuretics, and blood vessel dilators. Surgery and transplantation are reserved as last resorts.

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is an inherited lung disease. It changes the makeup of mucus in the body. Instead of being slippery and watery, mucus in a person with CF is thick, sticky, and excessive.

This thick mucus can build up in your lungs and make it more difficult to breathe. With so much of it around, bacteria can grow more easily, increasing the risk of lung infections.

Symptoms usually start in infancy and include:

According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), it can affect other organs in addition to the lungs, including your:

  • liver
  • intestines
  • sinuses
  • pancreas
  • sex organs

Doctors know that CF is caused by mutations in the gene that usually regulates the level of salt in cells. The mutations cause this gene to malfunction, changing the makeup of mucus and increasing salt in sweat.

There is no cure for CF, but treatment eases symptoms and slows progression.

Early treatment is best, which is why doctors now regularly screen for the disease. Medications and physical therapy help loosen mucus and prevent lung infections.

Bronchiectasis is a disease of the bronchi, the main airways into the lungs. The walls of the bronchi become thicker, usually because of an infection or lung injury. Your airways lose their ability to clear mucus, allowing more bacteria to grow and causing further infection.

In young people, bronchiectasis is often caused by CF. Almost half of all cases of the disease in the United States can be attributed to CF.

Symptoms of bronchiectasis are similar to those of other chronic lung diseases, including:

  • chronic cough
  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • coughing up mucus
  • chest pain
  • clubbing, which is when the flesh under your nails gets thicker

There’s no cure for bronchiectasis, but you can manage symptoms. Medications and chest physical therapy can help loosen mucus and prevent further infection.

Pneumonia is a lung infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. Microorganisms grow and thrive in the lungs, creating difficult symptoms. The air sacs become inflamed and may fill up with fluid, which disrupts the flow of oxygen.

Most of the time, people recover within a few weeks. Sometimes, though, the condition remains and may even become life threatening.

Pneumonia can affect anyone, but it’s most likely to develop in people whose lungs are already vulnerable because of:

  • smoking
  • a weakened immune system
  • another illness
  • surgery

Many times, pneumonia can be cured. Antibiotics and antiviral medications can help. With time, rest, and fluids, the disease will often go away. But in some cases, it can come back again and again, becoming a chronic disease.

Symptoms of chronic pneumonia include:

The symptoms may continue for a month or longer. Even if you take antibiotics, the symptoms may return when you finish them.

If regular treatments do not work, your doctor may recommend hospitalization so you can have access to additional treatment and rest.

Possible complications of chronic pneumonia include:

  • lung abscesses, which are pus pockets in or around your lungs
  • unmanaged inflammation in your body
  • respiratory failure

Lung cancer is a disease in which the cells in your lungs grow unexpectedly, gradually developing tumors. As the tumors get bigger and more numerous, they can make it more difficult for your lungs to do their job. Eventually, the cancerous cells can spread to other areas of your body.

Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It can grow for a while without creating any symptoms.

When symptoms do develop, they’re often thought to be caused by other conditions. A persistent cough, for example, can be a symptom of lung cancer, but it can be caused by other lung diseases as well.

Other possible symptoms of lung cancer include:

  • wheezing
  • shortness of breath
  • unexplained weight loss
  • coughing up blood

People most at risk include those who:

  • smoke
  • are exposed to dangerous chemicals by inhalation
  • have a family history of lung cancer
  • have other types of cancer

Treatment depends on the type of lung cancer and its severity. A doctor will typically create a plan that includes surgery to remove the cancerous part of the lung, chemotherapy, and radiation. Some medications can also help target and kill cancerous cells.

Is COVID-19 a chronic condition?

COVID-19 is an acute viral disease that affects the lungs. But COVID-19 can cause damage to the lungs, causing future complications.

Many people also experience symptoms of COVID-19 long after initial symptoms. Post COVID-19 condition can last several months and can cause breathing problems.

Scientists are still studying the long-term effects of COVID-19, but we have learned that people with obesity are at greater risk for poor long-term recovery.

Most importantly, if you have a chronic lung disease, you’re at increased risk for severe illness if you get COVID-19. The American Lung Association recommends getting tested and vaccinated, as well as keeping up with your medication regimen.

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To increase your odds of avoiding chronic lung disease, consider these tips:

  • Do not smoke, or quit smoking. Avoid secondhand smoke.
  • Try to reduce your exposure to pollutants in the environment, at work, and in your home.
  • Exercise regularly. Aerobic exercise that increases your heart rate is best.
  • Eat a nutritious diet.
  • Get regular checkups with a doctor.
  • Be sure to get a flu shot every year. After you turn 65, get a pneumonia shot.
  • If you’re at risk for lung cancer, ask a doctor about screening options.
  • Test your home for radon gas.
  • Wash your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, and stay away from individuals who are sick.