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Information for Patients

The following is a list of commonly used respiratory terminology:


Airways- These are the tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs (bronchi and bronchioles).

Alpha-1-Antitrypsin deficiency- An inherited condition in which an enzyme (a1Antitrypsin) is lacking. The result, particularly in smokers, is early onset and fast-progressing emphysema, and also liver damage.

Alveoli- Tiny air sacs at the end of the bronchioles. Oxygen in the air you have inhaled passes through the thin walls of the alveoli into the tiny blood vessels (capillaries) surrounding the alveoli.

Asthma- Asthma affects in excess of 5 million people in the UK and costs the NHS approximately £1 Billion per year in treatment and care. Asthma affects the airways (the tubes that carry air into and out of the lungs). People with asthma have sensitive airways that when triggered tighten and become narrower. The airways can become swollen and mucus can be produced, making it difficult to breathe. There is no cure for asthma but it can be controlled and asthma attacks minimised. Most people who receive and take their treatments correctly can lead normal lives.

Bronchi/Bronchioles- The large and small tubes that carry air in and out of the lungs – the airways

Bronchiectasis- Bronchiectasis is a long-term lung condition where the airways of the lungs become widened, leading to a build-up of excess mucus, which can make the airways of the lungs more vulnerable to infection.

Bronchitis- Acute bronchitis is a chest infection. Chronic bronchitis is a permanent cough, producing phlegm, and is one of the conditions that is called COPD.
Bronchoscopy A bronchoscopy is a test whereby a telescope in a flexible narrow tube is passed through the nose into the lungs; this is usually done with sedation. The tube has an eyepiece so the doctor can see inside to look for anything abnormal and can take cell samples for testing. They can also take photographs of the inside of the airways if necessary.

Carbon Dioxide (CO2)- A waste gas that is breathed out.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)- COPD is the name for a collection of lung diseases including chronic bronchitis and emphysema. In excess of 800,000 people in the UK have been diagnosed with COPD. People with COPD have trouble breathing in and out, referred to as airflow obstruction. Breathing difficulties are caused by long-term damage to the lungs, usually because of smoking.

CT Scan- Similar to an X-ray, a CT (computerised tomography) scan can provide a sharper and more detailed image of the lungs to help a specialist reach a diagnosis.

Cystic Fibrosis (CF)- Cystic Fibrosis is a life-threatening inherited disease and affects in excess of 9,000 people in the UK. CF affects internal organs, especially the lungs and digestive system by causing sticky mucus to be produced which clogs up the systems making it hard to breathe and digest food. In excess of 2 million people in the UK carry the faulty gene that causes CF. If 2 carriers of the gene have a child, they have approximately a 1 in 4 chance of having CF. Approximately only half the people with CF are likely to live beyond their late 30s.

Emphysema- Emphysema is a lung disease where the walls of the small air sacs and small airways (bronchioles) are damaged, losing their elasticity and making it difficult to breathe in and out. It is one of the conditions included in the term COPD.

Exacerbation- When symptoms get temporarily worse in lung conditions.

Exhaled Carbon Monoxide Test- This test measures the amount of carbon monoxide a person exhales. Carbon monoxide is increased if a cigarette has recently been smoked.

Idiopathic- This means the cause is unknown.

Idiopathic Pulmonary Disease (IPF)- IPF is caused by repeated injury to small areas of the lungs resulting in inflammation and scarring. IPF is a fairly rare condition affecting approximately 10 in 10,000 people in the UK, but recent figures show that the number of newly diagnosed cases is on the increase. The condition predominantly effects people over the age of 50 and is more common in men than women; it is also more common in smokers than non-smokers. The lung function of people with IPF gradually worsens over time. The scarring prevents the lungs from effectively taking oxygen from the air and passing it to the blood, meaning that people with IPF have breathing difficulties and breathlessness from simple activities.

Inhaler- A device which gives a dose of medication to breathe in.

Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD)- A group of lung disorders that cause scarring of the lung tissue, making it difficult to get enough oxygen into the body; around a third of people with interstitial lung disease may have pulmonary hypertension.

Lung Function Tests- See “Spirometry”

Lymphangioleio-myomatosis (LAM)- Lymphangioleiomyomatosis (LAM) is a rare disorder which affects women only. It affects approximately just over 1 person in 1 million with 75 women currently being diagnosed in the UK. The condition mainly affects the lungs and causes an overgrowth of the smooth muscle cell around the airways, blood vessels and lymph vessels that drain the excess fluid from the lungs. This leads to cysts developing in the lung and some patients also have a non-malignant tumour or tumours in the kidneys that can cause bleeding. LAM patients generally develop the onset of their symptoms in their 30s.

Medical Device- Medical devices may be classified as Class I, Class IIa, IIb and III, with Class III covering the highest risk products. Classification of a medical device will depend upon a series of factors, including: how long the device is intended to be in continuous use, whether or not the device is invasive or surgically invasive, whether the device is implantable or active, whether or not the device contains a substance, which in its own right is considered to be a medicinal substance and has action supplementary to that of the device.

Metabolism- The series of processes by which food is converted into the energy and products needed to sustain life.

Methacholine Test- This test measures how sensitive the airways are to methacholine (a substance that causes the airways to narrow). Lung function is checked first (see “Spirometry”) and then nebulised saline (salt water) is inhaled; lung function is measured again. This test can check whether a breathing problem is asthma.

Mucus- A sticky fluid which protects against particles moving down into the lungs and causing damage.

Nebuliser- This is a machine that delivers medication as a mist.

Oximetry- A test that monitors the amount of oxygen in your blood, using a small device often placed on the finger or earlobe

Oxygen Saturation- If an individual has lung disease or other types of medical conditions, fewer red blood cells carry their usual load of oxygen and the oxygen “saturation” will be lower than 95%. The blood oxygen level can be measured in two ways; with a clip that fits onto the finger or through an arterial blood gas.

Phlegm- Thick mucus.

PPI- Patient and Public Involvement.

Preventer- A medication that is designed to prevent airways inflammation.

Pulmonary- To do with the lungs.

Pulmonary (Lung) Function Tests- See “Spirometry”

Pulmonary Hypertension- This is high pressure inside the pulmonary arteries, which are the vessels carrying blood from the right-hand side of the heart to the lungs.

Pulmonary Rehabilitation- A course of exercise and education which helps some people with lung conditions to become more active.

Respiratory- To do with breathing and the chest.

Respiratory Questionnaire- A questionnaire that gains background information about an individual’s respiratory details.

Service User or User- A service user is someone who uses or has used health and/or social care services because of illness or disability. Some people do not like this term because they feel it has negative connotations.

Spacer- A chamber used with an inhaler to increase the amount of medication reaching the smaller airways.

Spirometry Test- A spirometry test is a breathing test which measures the amount of air that can be blown out of the lungs (pulmonary or lung function). The test is performed by blowing into a machine at least 3 times to make sure the results are consistent.

Sputum- Mucus or phlegm coughed up from the airways.

Sputum Induction Test- This test involves producing a fresh sample of sputum to be analysed in the laboratory, to find any inflammatory cells or chemicals that may present and causing a problem. This procedure involves inhaling mildly salty water for 5 minutes to loosen the mucus on the chest so that it can be coughed up, producing a sputum sample.

Steroids- Medication which reduces inflammation. Steroids for the lungs can be taken from an inhaler or as tablets; they are not the same as the steroids that some body-builders use.

Wheeze- A squeaking or whistling sound when breathing out.