Risk Factors of Respiratory Health Problems

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What is ‘respiratory health’?

In simple terms, our respiratory system is a large network of organs and muscle tissue, all of which work together to allow us to breathe. Therefore, a person’s level of respiratory health would be based on the health of the organs and muscle tissue that make up their respiratory system and how easily they can breathe. Unfortunately, not everyone has perfect respiratory health. Studies have found that chronic respiratory health issues are present in 540 million people globally.1 Of course, the phrase ‘respiratory health issue’ is extremely broad, covering a wide range of health issues. Below are some common examples of respiratory health issues, ranging from mild to severe.

  • Common cold
  • Cough
  • Asthma
  • Pneumonia
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Lung cancer

Symptoms of respiratory health issues

Because the phrase ‘respiratory health issue’ is so broad, the symptoms an individual with respiratory health issues experiences can differ greatly depending on their condition. Below are some of the symptoms most common in those with respiratory health issues.

  • Increased breathing rate
  • Chronic coughing
  • Increased mucus production
  • Feeling short of breath
  • Wheezing when breathing
  • Grunting whilst breathing
  • Regular chest pain
  • Changes in skin colour
  • Coughing up blood

Risk factors

Whilst there is a wide range of risk factors for respiratory health issues, certain risk factors are much more prominent than others. Below are some of the risk factors that put us most at risk of developing some form of respiratory disease.


Infections are a common cause of ill respiratory health. A respiratory infection is any form of infection that affects a part of the body that helps us breathe. This includes the lungs, airways, and sinuses. Examples of respiratory infections include the common cold, sinusitis, and chest infections. In most cases, respiratory infections clear up within one or two weeks and are relatively harmless. However, in some cases, respiratory infections can be more severe, especially in people diagnosed with pre-existing respiratory issues such as cystic fibrosis or asthma. Severe respiratory infections can restrict breathing, have long-term health implications, and, in some cases, can become fatal. If you are diagnosed with a respiratory infection and begin to struggle to breathe, ensure to dial 999 immediately.


There is a wide range of allergens that can trigger respiratory-related symptoms. Respiratory-related symptoms such as coughing, sneezing, increased mucus production, and inflammation in the airways, lungs and nasal cavity are all commonly triggered by allergens. In most cases, those who suffer from respiratory-related symptoms as a result of allergens have a type of asthma called ‘allergic asthma’. Like any form of asthma, those with allergic asthma may suffer from an asthma attack if exposed to the specific allergen they are allergic to. Therefore, those diagnosed with the condition should ensure to have easy access to their inhaled and oral medication at all times in case of an asthma attack. Below are some of the allergies that can trigger respiratory-related symptoms.

  • Pollen
  • Animals
  • Dust
  • Dust mites
  • Ragweed
  • Mould

Exposure to harmful substances

Exposing our respiratory system to harmful substances can have a long-lasting and damaging effect on the respiratory system. Below are some of the substances identified as most harmful to our respiratory health.

Cigarette smoke

Research has found that both first- and second-hand smoke inhalation causes permanent damage to our lungs, alveoli, and airways as well as increasing our risk of chronic respiratory diseases such as cancer and COPD.2


Studies have shown that long-term inhalation of dust can be extremely damaging to the lungs, increasing the risk of asthma, COPD, and even lung cancer.3


Even short-term exposure to asbestos can cause damage to our respiratory health. However, research has found that those who are exposed to asbestos for a matter of years are much more likely to develop cancer, asbestosis, and COPD.4

Industrial chemicals

Long-term exposure to industrial chemicals such as chlorine, nitrogen, ammonia, and oxides of sulphur has been shown to cause both respiratory damage and increase an individual’s risk of lung disease.

Air pollution

Air pollution is a growing issue in many parts of the world and is especially likely to affect those who live in urban areas. Air pollutants such as traffic and industrial fumes can cause both short- and long-term respiratory damage. In the short term, those who live in areas with high levels of air pollution may experience breathlessness, coughing, and wheezing. Unfortunately, studies have found that long-term exposure to air pollution can cause chronic respiratory diseases such as asthma, COPD, and cancer.5


Our respiratory system is one of the most important systems in our body, playing out many vital functions; therefore, we need to look after it! If possible, try and limit your exposure to any form of harmful substances, keep your house dust-free and avoid smoking at all costs. If you suffer from any of the aforementioned symptoms of poor respiratory health, ensure to book an appointment with your healthcare provider immediately.


  1. Labaki WW, Han MK. Chronic respiratory diseases: a global view. The Lancet Respiratory Medicine [Internet]. 2020 Jun 1 [cited 2022 Aug 24];8(6):531–3. Available from: https://www.thelancet.com/journals/lanres/article/PIIS2213-2600(20)30157-0/fulltext
  2. Prevention (US) C for DC and, Promotion (US) NC for CDP and H, Health (US) O on S and. Pulmonary diseases [Internet]. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (US); 2010 [cited 2022 Aug 24]. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK53021/
  3. Habybabady RH, Sis HN, Paridokht F, Ramrudinasab F, Behmadi A, Khosravi B, et al. Effects of dust exposure on the respiratory health symptoms and pulmonary functions of street sweepers. Malays J Med Sci [Internet]. 2018 Nov [cited 2022 Aug 24];25(6):76–84. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6422576/
  4. Musk AW, de Klerk N, Reid A, Hui J, Franklin P, Brims F. Asbestos-related diseases. Int J Tuberc Lung Dis. 2020 Jun 1;24(6):562–7.
  5. Jiang XQ, Mei XD, Feng D. Air pollution and chronic airway diseases: what should people know and do? J Thorac Dis [Internet]. 2016 Jan [cited 2022 Aug 24];8(1):E31–40. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4740163/

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This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

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George Evans

MSc, Sport Science, University of Lincoln

George is a freelance writer with three years of writing experience and first class honours in Sport Science (BSc).

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