Three of the most common lung diseases in women are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), and lung cancer.
Asthma is a chronic (ongoing) disease of the airways in the lungs called bronchial tubes. Bronchial tubes carry air into and out of the lungs. In people with asthma, the walls of these airways become inflamed (swollen) and oversensitive. The airways overreact to things like smoke, air pollution, mold, and many chemical sprays. They also can be irritated by allergens (like pollen and dust mites) and by respiratory infections (like a cold). When the airways overreact, they get narrower. This limits the flow of air into and out of the lungs and causes trouble breathing. Asthma symptoms include wheezing, coughing, and tightness in the chest.
Women are more likely than men to have asthma and are more likely to die from it. The percentage of women, especially young women, with asthma is rising in the United States. Researchers are not sure why. Many experts think that air pollution and allergens play a role in this increase. Breathing tobacco smoke also is linked to an increased risk of asthma.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to chronic obstructive bronchitis and emphysema. These conditions often occur together. Both diseases limit airflow into and out of the lungs and make breathing difficult. COPD usually gets worse with time.
A person with COPD has ongoing inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air into and out of the lungs. This irritation causes the growth of cells that make mucus. The extra mucus leads to a lot of coughing. Over time, the irritation causes the walls of the airways to thicken and develop scars. The airways may become thickened enough to limit airflow to and from the lungs. If that happens, the condition is called chronic obstructive bronchitis.
In emphysema, the lung tissue gets weak, and the walls of the air sacs (alveoli) break down. Normally, oxygen from the air goes into the blood through these air sac walls. In a person with emphysema, the ruined air sac walls means less oxygen can pass into the blood. This causes shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing.
More than twice as many women as men are now diagnosed with chronic bronchitis. The rate of emphysema among women has increased by 5 percent in recent years but has decreased among men. And more women have died from COPD than men every year since 2000. Researchers are trying to understand why. Cigarette smoking, a main cause of COPD, has increased among women. One theory is that cigarette smoke is more damaging to women than to men.
Lung cancer is a disease in which abnormal (malignant) lung cells multiply and grow without control. These cancerous cells can invade nearby tissues, spread to other parts of the body, or both. The two major kinds of lung cancer are named for the way the cells look under a microscope. They are:
- Small cell lung cancer. This kind of lung cancer tends to spread quickly.
- Non-small cell lung cancer. This is a term for several types of lung cancers that act in a similar way. Most lung cancers are non-small cell. This kind of lung cancer tends to spread more slowly than small cell lung cancer.
In the United States, more women now die from lung cancer than from any other type of cancer. Tobacco use is the major cause of lung cancer.
Other lung diseases
Less common lung problems that affect women include:
- Pulmonary emboli. These are blood clots that travel to the lungs from other parts of the body and plug up blood vessels in the lungs. Some factors that increase your risk include being pregnant, having recently given birth, and taking birth control pills or menopausal hormone therapy. Pulmonary emboli can affect blood flow in the lungs and can reduce oxygen flow into the blood. Very large emboli can cause sudden death.
- Pulmonary hypertension. This is high blood pressure in the arteries that bring blood to the lungs. It can affect blood flow in the lungs and can reduce oxygen flow into the blood.
- Sarcoidosis and pulmonary fibrosis. These inflammatory diseases cause stiffening and scarring in the lungs.
- LAM (lymphangioleiomyomatosis) (lim-FAN-jee-oh-LEE-oh-MEYE-oh-mah-TOH-sis). This is a rare lung disease that mostly affects women in their mid-30s and 40s. Muscle-like cells grow out of control in certain organs, including the lungs.
- Influenza (the flu) and pneumonia. Flu is a respiratory infection that is caused by a virus and can damage the lungs. Usually, people recover well from the flu, but it can be dangerous and even deadly for some people. Those at greater risk include older people, young children, pregnant women, and people with certain health conditions like asthma. Pneumonia is a severe inflammation of the lungs that can be caused by bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Fluid builds up in the lungs and may lower the amount of oxygen that the blood can get from air that’s breathed in. People most at risk are older than 65 or younger than 2, or already have health problems. Vaccines are the best protection against flu and pneumonia.