Causes of Respiratory Health Problems

What is good respiratory health?

Good respiratory health consists of maintaining a lifestyle that allows you to support  healthy lungs leading to overall good health. Having good respiratory health involves partaking while also not engaging in certain activities to allow you to have healthy lungs. Activities you can do to maintain good respiratory health include: not smoking cigarettes, avoiding exposure to secondhand smoke, avoiding exposure to air pollutants, and prevention of infections, colds and flus.1 Activities  you can participate in to maintain good respiratory health involve cardiovascular exercise such as sprinting, jogging, biking, and swimming, ensuring to get regular doctor checkups, maintaining good posture, drinking lots of water, and performing breathing exercises.1-2

Symptoms of respiratory health issues

Respiratory health conditions in which the respiratory system functions are altered due to infection, pathological changes (such as disease), or other conditions affecting the body. Symptoms of respiratory health issues include: 

  • Wheezing: Wheezing occurs due to tightening of the airways of the respiratory system. It can be caused by a variety of conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, flu, and cold. Wheezing makes it harder to breathe due to reduced air flow and the sensation of the tightened airways.3
  • Changes in Breathing Rate: Changes in one’s breathing rate is one of the most significant respiratory health issues. An increase in one’s breathing rate may be an indicator that one is not getting enough oxygen or are having breathing difficulties.3
  • Skin Colour Changes: Bluish skin around the mouth, lips, fingernails, and toenails is a sign that one is not getting enough oxygen. The bluish colour results from low oxygen in these areas 
  • Sweating: Respiratory health issues that are untreated can cause one to sweat more as a result of their faster breathing rate. The skin is typically not warm when touched, but rather cool.3
  • Chest Retractions: Chest retractions occur when the chest appears to fall below the neck or breastbone upon each cycle of breath. This is one of the body’s mechanisms to draw air into the lungs when there are issues in the respiratory system.3



Especially when paired with a chronic condition such as cystic fibrosis

According to the NHS, respiratory infections are infections that affect the parts of the respiratory system involved in breathing, including, the sinuses, throat, bronchi (large airways), bronchioles (small airways), and the lungs.4 Respiratory infections are often caused by viral and bacterial  infections that spread through touch, cough and sneezes of an individual infected with the virus or bacteria.4 Respiratory infections can further be divided into two categories: upper respiratory tract infections and lower respiratory tract infections. Upper respiratory tract infections affect the upper section of the respiratory system: sinuses and throat. Lower respiratory tract infections affect the lower section of the respiratory system: bronchi, bronchioles, and lungs. Each has their own distinct symptoms as well as some overlap.5

Respiratory infections can be particularly harmful when they occur along with any chronic conditions an individual may be experiencing such as asthma, cystic fibrosis, chronic bronchitis, and pulmonary hypertension. Each of these chronic conditions have their own distinct symptoms and may already cause the mentioned symptoms of many respiratory conditions. When paired with a respiratory infection, it may be life threatening. Cystic fibrosis, an inherited lung condition that is characterised by excess mucus buildup in the lungs and pancreas.6 Cystic fibrosis patients have increased risk of lung infection, lung infections can cause permanent reduction in lung function in cystic fibrosis.6 It is very important that patients with chronic respiratory conditions immediately seek medical attention if they suspect they have a lung infection. 

Exposure to harmful substances

Cigarette smokeCigarette smoke is one of the most harmful substances to the lungs. Smoking cigarettes and being exposed to secondhand smoke increases one’s risk of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.7 Cigarette smoke damages and irritates the structural components of the respiratory system such as the airways and the alveoli (small air sacs) of the lungs. This damage and irritation over time can lead to lung disease as well as heart disease and stroke which  indirectly impacts the respiratory system.7


Asbestosis is a lung condition that is caused by prolonged exposure to asbestos fibres.8 Asbestos is a product that is used due to heat resistant and corrosion resistant properties. However, prolonged exposure to asbestos leads to lung tissue scarring and breathing difficulties.8 The airborne asbestos particles enter the lungs and remain in the alveoli and overtime irritate and thus scar the lung tissue.8

DustSilicosis is a lung condition caused by long-term (several year period) inhalation of crystalline silica dust.9 When silica dust is inhaled it causes inflammation and gradual lung tissue scarring leading to reduced lung function.9 

Air pollution

Industrial fumes

Smoke inhalation occurs when one inhales harmful smoke particles and gases resulting in inflammation of the lungs and airways which causes breathing difficulties due to the eventual swelling that results.10 Coughs can occur as a result of the irritated airways producing more mucus to ease the irritation. Shortness of breath, wheezing, and skin colour changes can also result as the respiratory system and other body systems try to combat the adverse effects of the smoke inhalation.10 


Living in an urban area or any area that has high volumes of traffic can also gradually lead to respiratory health problems. In 2013, The World Health Organization declared that city outdoor air pollution is as harmful and carcinogenic as smoking was in 1985.11 Cars in a traffic jam actually cause up to forty percent more pollution than cars that are in motion. While in a traffic jam, it is advised to to keep the windows up (when possible) to reduce exposure to harmful air pollutants produced in traffic jams.11


Cystic fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is an inherited respiratory condition that causes excessive thick mucus production and its buildup in the lungs, pancreas, and other organs.12 The thick mucus is harmful as it can clog and block the airways of the lungs. Cystic fibrosis symptoms are consistent with those of several other respiratory health problems, however, when left untreated it can cause serious complications such as respiratory failure, coughing up blood, and chronic lung infections.12

Alpha-1-Antitrypsin Deficiency

Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a protein that is produced in the liver and functions to protect the lungs and other organs from infectious and irritating agents13 Alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency is a rare genetic disorder in which individuals have low levels of this protein in their bloodstream, leading to the lungs not being protected from infectious and irritating agents.13 People with the condition have increased risk of lung diseases such as emphysema (damage to the air sacs within the lungs).13


Respiratory health problems are described as conditions that affect the functioning of the respiratory system by causing symptoms such as coughing, wheezing, and changes in breathing (1). Respiratory conditions are caused by a variety of factors including viral or bacterial infections, exposure to harmful substances such as asbestos and cigarette smoke, air pollution, and genetic factors. However, there are several ways you can maintain good respiratory health such as regular cardiovascular exercise, avoiding cigarette smoke, minimising exposure to air pollution, and performing breathing exercises.


  1. American Lung Association. Protecting Your Lungs [internet]. 2021 October 6 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  2. Rush Content Hub. 9 Tips for Healthy Lungs [internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  3. John Hopkins Medicine. Signs of Respiratory Distress [internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  4. NHS. Respiratory Tract Infections [internet]. 2021 April 28 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:,need%20to%20see%20a%20GP.
  5. Cleveland Clinic. Upper Respiratory Infection [internet]. 2021 May 25 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  6. Pool J. Lung Infections Associated with Cystic Fibrosis [internet]. 2021 August 14 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  7. John Hopkins Medicine. Smoking and Respiratory Diseases [internet]. 2022 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:
  8. Mayo Clinic. Asbestosis [internet]. 2022 February 11 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:,many%20years%20after%20initial%20exposure
  9. NHS. Silicosis [internet]. 2021 July 1 [cited 2022 August 9]. Available from:,that%20can%20be%20easily%20inhaled
  10. Healthline. What to Do When You or Someone You Know May Have Breathed in Too Much Smoke [internet]. 2018 July 9 [cited 2022 August 10]. Available from:
  11. Brazier Y. How Sitting in Traffic Jams Can Harm Your Health [internet]. 2016 August 29 [cited 2022 August 10]. Available from:
  12. Mayo Clinic. Cystic Fibrosis [internet]. 2021 November 23 [cited 2022 August 10]. Available from:,are%20normally%20thin%20and%20slippery
  13. Cleveland Clinic. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency [internet]. 2019 December 24 [cited 2022 August 10]. Available from:

Brianna Jacobs

Bachelor of Science - BS, Biomedical Sciences, General, University of Birmingham, England
Brianna is a Second Year Biomedical Science Student who experienced Medical Writing Intern. presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
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