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February 24, 2010 > When a Cough is More Than a Cough

When a Cough is More Than a Cough

Free Seminar Focuses on Common Lung Symptoms

Almost everyone has had a cough before. And most of us are familiar with the feeling of being winded, often following physical exertion. But at what point do coughing and shortness of breath indicate a larger health problem?

Next Tuesday, March 2, Dr. Carmen Agcaoili, M.D., pulmonologist and Medical Director of Washington Hospital's Intensivist Program, will present a free Health & Wellness seminar focusing on coughing, shortness of breath and other common lung symptoms.

According to Dr. Agcaoili, there's good reason to monitor symptoms like coughing and shortness of breath, which is also called dyspnea.

"If these symptoms persist, they usually are indicative of a more serious problem," she explains. "Also, most lung conditions will have cough and shortness of breath."

This means that a persistent cough or recurring shortness of breath could potentially indicate lung conditions from pneumonia to asthma.

Lung diseases can be broken down into three main categories, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):
* Airway diseases, which affect the tubes (airways) that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs. These diseases cause a narrowing or blockage of the airways. They include asthma, emphysema, and chronic bronchitis.
* Lung tissue diseases, which affect the structure of the lung tissue. In these diseases, scarring or inflammation of the tissue makes the lungs unable to expand fully and reduces the lungs' ability to take up oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Pulmonary fibrosis and sarcoidosis are examples of lung tissue diseases.
* Pulmonary circulation diseases, which affect the blood vessels in the lungs and are caused by clotting, scarring, or inflammation of the blood vessels. They affect the ability of the lungs to take up oxygen and to release carbon dioxide and may also affect heart function.

The most common lung disorders, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), include:
* Asthma
* Chronic bronchitis
* COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
* Emphysema
* Pulmonary fibrosis
* Sarcoidosis

But, as Dr. Agcaoili points out, coughing and shortness of breath can also indicate conditions affecting other body systems.

"I will go over the differential diagnosis of cough and shortness of breath, which is generally divided into organ systems, including, pulmonary, cardiovascular, metabolic and anxiety," she says.

Lung disorders such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)/emphysema, asthma, pneumonia can cause similar symptoms. But coughing and shortness of breath can also be signs of heart failure, Gastroesophageal Reflux Disease (GERD), and even anxiety and depression, according to Dr. Agcaoili.

"I may also talk about occupational lung disorders that can cause shortness of breath and coughing stemming from things like working with asbestos, a baker's exposure to flour, hair care specialists and other professions."

Dr. Agcaoili says she will also address treatment options for certain lung diseases, including lung transplants, gene therapy for cystic fibrosis and medications for pulmonary hypertension.

Common questions she often hears from patients include:
* When do I worry about a cough or shortness of breath?
* What accompanying other signs and symptoms should I note?

According to the American Lung Association, other symptoms of lung-related disease include:
* Chronic mucus production
* Wheezing
* Coughing up blood
* Chronic chest pain

As part of her talk, Dr. Agcaoili will explain which symptoms are linked with which types of underlying condition, such as heart failure, pneumonia and asthma.

What to do

If you're wondering if your cough or shortness of breath may indicate a chronic condition, join Dr. Agcaoili on Tuesday, March 2, from 1 to 2:30 p.m. in the Conrad E. Anderson, M.D. Auditorium located at 2500 Mowry Avenue.

To register online, visit or call Washington Hospital's Health Connection line at (800) 963-7070.

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