Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women in the United States. Twice as many men as women die of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (such as emphysema), and pneumonia is a more common cause of death among men than among women.
Lung disease is directly related to specific risk factors such as cigarette smoking and working in occupations that carry risks for developing lung disease. Plastics, wood, metal, and textile workers; bakers; millers; farmers; poultry handlers; miners; grain elevator workers; laboratory technicians; drug manufacturers; dry cleaners; and detergent manufacturers are all exposed to airborne agents that can cause occupational asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory disorders.
Your lungs have a limited capacity to protect themselves against many different types of irritants. For example, foreign substances trapped by the mucus that lines the airways can be voluntarily expelled (coughed up) as needed. Also, macrophages—scavenging white blood cells—on the inner surface of the alveoli ingest and destroy dust, soot, and other foreign particles, including airborne bacteria.
You also can take steps on your own to protect your respiratory system. Not
Concerns smoking and avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke are critical to protecting your lungs. Cigarette smoke is the major cause of lung cancer, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema. Exposure to cigarette smoke also increases your risk of respiratory infection, including colds. In the lungs, tobacco smoke increases the production of mucus, constricts air passages, and causes infections that break down the walls of alveoli, reducing the surface area for gas exchange. Cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) in tobacco smoke can cause abnormal cells to develop, which may eventually grow into malignant tumors that can spread to other parts of the body.
If your job exposes you to airborne irritants, be sure to wear a protective mask or, if needed, a respirator to prevent inhalation of those hazardous substances. Be familiar with the information and recommendations (such as precautions and first-aid measures) contained in the material safety data sheets for all of the hazardous substances you may be exposed to at work. Your employer should provide all necessary protective equipment, which should be in good working order. You should also monitor pollution warnings on television and radio before working or exercising outdoors.
Keep your home well ventilated to prevent the accumulation of carbon monoxide or other harmful gases and to prevent mold and fungi from growing inside. Clean air conditioners, humidifiers, dehumidifiers, and air purifiers regularly to reduce your exposure to dust, mold spores, and other irritants and allergens. Test your home for radon, a colorless, odorless radioactive gas that is the second most common cause of lung cancer in the United States. Install carbon monoxide detectors (which are available at hardware stores) on each floor of your home.
Because you have plenty of reserve lung tissue, respiratory disorders may begin long before symptoms appear. Talk to your doctor about the following symptoms as soon as they occur:
• Cough. Pay particular attention to a cough that lasts more than a month, that brings up blood from your lungs, or that produces mucus (especially if it is yellowish, green, or brown).
• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. Except during physical exertion and at high altitude, breathing should not require noticeable effort or leave you feeling as though you cannot get enough air.
• Chest pain. You should not feel pain when taking deep breaths or coughing, nor should your lungs ache.
• Abnormal breathing noises. Wheezing or whistling noises that accompany breathing can indicate an obstruction of air flow.
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