Obstructive Lung Diseases Overview and Practice Questions Illustration

Obstructive Lung Diseases: Overview and Practice Questions

by | Updated: Nov 24, 2023

Obstructive lung diseases are a group of respiratory conditions characterized by airway obstruction, which hampers the ability of air to flow freely in and out of the lungs.

These diseases are often associated with chronic inflammation, leading to a narrowing of the airways, excessive mucus production, and respiratory symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, and chronic cough.

With the increasing global burden of these conditions, understanding their pathophysiology, risk factors, and management strategies is critical.

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What is an Obstructive Lung Disease?

Obstructive lung disease refers to respiratory disorders where airflow is hindered due to narrowed or blocked airways. Common types include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, and bronchiectasis. Symptoms often include shortness of breath, wheezing, and coughing. Chronic inflammation and mucus production typically cause the obstructions.

Normal vs Obstructed Lungs Airways Vector Illustration

Types of Obstructive Lung Diseases

Obstructive lung diseases are a group of respiratory disorders characterized by airway obstruction, limiting the outflow of air from the lungs. Here are the primary types:

Note: Each of these diseases has unique causes, symptoms, and treatments, but they all involve the obstruction of airflow, leading to breathing difficulties.


Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive respiratory disease that causes airflow blockage and breathing-related problems.

It’s predominantly caused by long-term exposure to irritating gases or particulate matter, most often from cigarette smoke.

COPD encompasses both emphysema (damage to the air sacs in the lungs) and chronic bronchitis (inflamed bronchial tubes with excessive mucus production).


Asthma is a chronic respiratory condition where the airways become inflamed and narrowed, often in response to specific triggers like allergens, cold air, or exercise.

This narrowing can cause periods of wheezing, coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

While it can be managed with medications and lifestyle adjustments, severe episodes, known as asthma attacks, can be life-threatening.

Cystic Fibrosis

Cystic fibrosis is a genetic disorder that causes thick, sticky mucus to build up in the lungs, digestive tract, and other parts of the body.

This mucus clogs the airways, leading to respiratory and digestive complications.

It’s associated with frequent lung infections, reduced lung function, and, over time, respiratory failure. Regular treatments are required to clear mucus and prevent complications.


Bronchiectasis is a chronic condition where the bronchial tubes in the lungs become irreversibly dilated and damaged due to chronic inflammation or infection.

This damage prevents the airways from effectively clearing mucus, leading to persistent cough, recurrent lung infections, and breathing difficulties.

Causes can include severe lung infections, immune disorders, or conditions like cystic fibrosis.

Chronic Bronchitis

Chronic bronchitis is a long-term inflammation of the bronchi, the major air passages to the lungs.

It’s characterized by a persistent cough that produces mucus for at least three months in two consecutive years.

The primary cause is smoking, but prolonged exposure to air pollutants and dust can also contribute. It’s often considered a subset of COPD when accompanied by emphysema.


Emphysema involves the gradual destruction of the alveoli, the tiny air sacs in the lungs where oxygen exchange occurs.

This destruction leads to the formation of larger, less efficient air spaces, reducing the lung’s capacity to transfer oxygen into the bloodstream.

The primary cause is smoking, but other factors like long-term exposure to airborne irritants can also contribute.

Emphysema is often grouped under the COPD umbrella along with chronic bronchitis.

Signs and Symptoms

Obstructive lung diseases, despite their distinct pathologies, often present overlapping clinical signs and symptoms.

Here are some common signs and symptoms associated with these diseases:

  • Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea): This is particularly noticeable during physical exertion but can also be present at rest in severe cases.
  • Wheezing: A high-pitched whistling sound when breathing, especially during exhalation, caused by narrowed or obstructed airways.
  • Chronic Cough: Persistent coughing that may produce mucus (sputum). The mucus can be clear, white, yellow, or even greenish.
  • Chest Tightness: A feeling of pressure or constriction in the chest, often worsening with cold air or during nighttime.
  • Increased Mucus Production: Especially in the morning or after lying down.
  • Frequent Respiratory Infections: People with obstructive lung diseases are more susceptible to infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.
  • Decreased Exercise Tolerance: Reduced ability to engage in physical activities due to breathlessness.
  • Cyanosis: A bluish discoloration of the skin, especially around the lips and fingertips, indicating reduced oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Clubbing: A bulbous enlargement of the ends of the fingers or toes, often seen in chronic respiratory disorders.
  • Respiratory Failure: In severe cases, the inability of the lungs to maintain adequate oxygen levels in the blood can lead to respiratory failure.
  • Unintended Weight Loss: Especially in more advanced stages, where the effort of breathing increases calorie expenditure.
  • Fatigue: Feeling continuously tired due to reduced oxygen supply to the body’s cells.

Note: The presence and severity of these symptoms can vary based on the specific type of obstructive lung disease, its stage, and individual factors. Early diagnosis and management can help alleviate these symptoms and improve the quality of life for affected individuals.


Obstructive lung diseases arise from various causes.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), encompassing chronic bronchitis and emphysema, is predominantly linked to long-term smoking, but prolonged exposure to environmental pollutants, occupational dusts, and chemicals can also contribute.

Asthma’s etiology often involves a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors, including allergens, respiratory infections, and certain drugs.

Cystic fibrosis is caused by a genetic mutation that leads to the production of thick, sticky mucus in the lungs.

Bronchiectasis can result from persistent infections, immune disorders, or be a complication of other respiratory conditions.

Note: While many causes are intrinsic or environmental, early interventions and reducing exposure to risk factors can prevent or mitigate the progression of these diseases.


Treatment for obstructive lung diseases aims to relieve symptoms, improve lung function, enhance the quality of life, and reduce the risk of exacerbations. Here’s a concise overview:

Pharmacological Interventions

  • Bronchodilators: Medications like beta-agonists and anticholinergics help relax and widen the airways, facilitating easier breathing.
  • Corticosteroids: Inhaled or systemic steroids reduce inflammation in the airways.
  • Mucolytics: Help break down and expel mucus from the lungs.
  • Antibiotics: Used to treat or prevent bacterial infections, especially in conditions like bronchiectasis or cystic fibrosis.

Non-Pharmacological Interventions

  • Pulmonary Rehabilitation: Comprehensive programs that combine exercise training, education, and support.
  • Oxygen Therapy: For individuals with significantly decreased oxygen levels in the blood.
  • Airway Clearance Techniques: Methods like chest physiotherapy or devices that help in mucus clearance.

Surgical and Procedural Options

  • Lung Transplant: Considered for severe cases where medical therapy is no longer effective.
  • Lung Volume Reduction Surgery: Removing damaged tissue from the lungs to help them work more efficiently.
  • Bullectomy: Surgical removal of large air spaces (bullae) that form in the lungs due to conditions like emphysema.

Lifestyle and Preventative Measures

  • Smoking Cessation: Crucial for prevention and to halt the progression of many obstructive diseases.
  • Vaccination: Annual flu shots and pneumonia vaccines reduce the risk of respiratory infections.
  • Avoiding Triggers: For asthma patients, identifying and avoiding allergens or irritants can prevent flare-ups.

Note: Treatment strategies are tailored based on the specific disease, its severity, and individual patient factors. Regular follow-ups with healthcare providers are vital to monitor disease progression and adjust treatment as needed.

What is CBABE?

CBABE serves as a mnemonic designed to facilitate the easy recall of the primary types of obstructive lung diseases.

Each letter in CBABE stands for a distinct disorder, as outlined below:

  • C – Cystic Fibrosis
  • B – Bronchiectasis
  • A – Asthma
  • B – Bronchitis (Chronic)
  • E – Emphysema

By remembering CBABE, you have a handy tool to quickly identify and categorize the main diseases that fall under the obstructive lung disease umbrella.

Obstructive Lung Disease Practice Questions

1. Which of the following are obstructive lung diseases?
The types of obstructive lung diseases include COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, chronic bronchitis, and emphysema.

2. What are the late signs of COPD?
Barrel chest, flattened diaphragm, accessory muscle usage, edema from cor pulmonale, changes in mental status due to decreased oxygen.

3. COPD includes what two dysfunctions?
Emphysema and chronic bronchitis

4. What is reduced or elevated in obstruction lung diseases?
FEV1 is reduced, VC may be reduced, and the TLC is normal or increased.

5. How is residual volume affected in obstructive lung diseases?
It increases.

6. What is COPD, and how does it occur?
It is a group of chronic respiratory disorders that cause irreversible and progressive damage to the lungs. They are debilitating conditions that may affect the individual’s ability to work and may lead to respiratory failure.

7. What is the general issue with an obstructive lung disease?
Difficulty blowing out air

8. Are obstructive lung diseases reversible?
They can be reversible (i.e., asthma) or fixed (i.e., nonreversible).

9. What do obstructive diseases result from?
They result from increased resistance to airflow due to a partial or complete obstruction.

10. Obstructive diseases occur at what level?
They may occur at any level, from the trachea to the respiratory bronchioles.

11. Obstructive diseases may result from what?
Anatomic airway narrowing (e.g., asthma); or the loss of elastic recoil of the lungs (e.g., emphysema).

12. What does COPD lead to?
It leads to large, permanently inflated alveolar air spaces.

13. What are the two primary causes of COPD?
Cigarette smoking and alpha1-antitrypsin

14. How can a COPD patient enhance survival?
Smoking cessation is the first-line intervention; also, annual influenza and pneumococcal vaccinations help enhance survival.

15. What is the emergency management of asthma?
Early and frequent use of aerosolized beta-2 agonists; high-dose corticosteroids; oxygen therapy; and antibiotics.

16. What is the environmental control of asthma?
Remain inside with windows closed, no pets, air purifiers, dust, and avoid all known triggers.

17. What are two characteristics of asthma?
Airway inflammation and increased mucus production.

18. What are two characteristics of bronchiectasis?
Excessive purulent sputum and irreversible dilatation of the bronchi.

19. What are two characteristics of chronic bronchitis?
Coughing for 3 months out of the year, for 2 consecutive years; and excessive secretions.

20. What are two characteristics of cystic fibrosis?
It’s a genetic condition and it causes high salt content in sweat.

21. What are two characteristics of emphysema?
It’s characterized by less surface area in the alveoli, and it may result in cor pulmonale.

22. How do you optimize lung function for COPD?
PRN bronchodilators for all COPD patients; systemic corticosteroids; and methylxanthines.

23. What is the primary goal of treating COPD?
Maximize the ability to perform daily tasks.

24. What are types of atelectasis?
Resorption, passive, and lobar atelectasis.

25. What is an acute exacerbation of COPD?
A state of worsening of COPD that is often defined by the need to increase medication and/or escalate care.

26. What is airway hyperresponsiveness?
A state of the airways that causes them to constrict abnormally in response to stress or insults (e.g., exercise, inhaled materials such as dust or allergens).

27. What is airway inflammation?
Localized protective response to pathogens occurring within the routes for passage of air into and out of the lungs and invoking the release of mediators, including mast cells, eosinophils, macrophage, epithelial cells, and T lymphocytes.

28. What is airway obstruction?
A state of abnormally slowed expiration, characterized most commonly by a decrease in FEV1.

29. What is asthma?
A clinical condition characterized by airway obstruction, which is partially or completely reversible either spontaneously or with treatment.

30. What is a bronchodilator?
A drug that relaxes contractions of the smooth muscle walls of the bronchioles to improve ventilation in the lungs. Pharmacologic bronchodilators are prescribed to improve aeration in asthma, bronchiectasis, bronchitis, and emphysema.

31. What is bronchospasm?
The abnormal contraction of the smooth muscle tissues of the bronchi that results in acute narrowing and obstruction.

32. What is chronic bronchitis?
A condition in which a chronic productive cough is present for at least 3 months of the year for at least 2 consecutive years.

33. What is COPD?
A disease state of the respiratory system characterized by the presence of incompletely reversible airflow obstruction.

34. What is emphysema?
A condition characterized by abnormal, permanent enlargement of the airspaces beyond the terminal bronchioles, accompanied by destruction of the walls of airspace without fibrosis.

35. What is supplemental oxygen?
Oxygen delivered at concentrations exceeding 21% to increase the amount circulating within the blood.

36. Why do patients with emphysema have a progressive difficulty with expiration?
Air trapping and increased residual volume.

37. Which spirometry volumes change in obstructive lung diseases?
Obstructive lung diseases cause an increase in residual volume and functional residual capacity (FRC).

38. How can a flattened diaphragm be discovered?
A chest radiograph (e.g., as in emphysema)

39. What is a barrel chest?
Fixation of ribs in a respiratory position; increased anterior-posterior diameter of thorax; commonly seen in patients with emphysema.

40. What are the signs and symptoms of emphysema?
Dyspnea, hyperventilation with a prolonged expiratory phase, development of barrel chest, anorexia, fatigue, weight loss, and digital clubbing.

41. What are the diagnostic tests for emphysema?
Chest radiography and pulmonary function testing (PFT).

42. What is the treatment for emphysema?
Avoidance of respiratory irritants, immunization against influenza and pneumonia, pulmonary rehabilitation, appropriate breathing techniques, and adequate nutrition and hydration.

43. What are the warning signs of chronic bronchitis?
Inflammation, obstruction, repeated infections, and chronic coughing.

44. What typically describes a patient’s history with chronic bronchitis?
History of cigarette smoking or living in urban or industrial areas.

45. What is the progression of chronic bronchitis?
Mucosa inflamed and swollen, hypertrophy and hyperplasia of mucous glands, fibrosis/thickening of the bronchial walls, low oxygen levels, severe dyspnea and fatigue, pulmonary hypertension, cor pulmonale.

46. What are the signs and symptoms of chronic bronchitis?
Constant productive cough, tachypnea, shortness of breath, frequent thick and purulent secretions, cough and rhonchi more severe in the morning, hypoxia, cyanosis, hypercapnia, polycythemia, weight loss, and cor pulmonale. 

47. What is asthma?
Bronchial obstruction that occurs in people with hypersensitive or hyperresponsive airways.

48. Asthma often occurs at what ages?
It may occur in childhood or adulthood, and there is often a family history of allergic conditions.

49. What is extrinsic asthma?
Acute episodes triggered by type I hypersensitivity reactions.

50. What is intrinsic asthma?
The onset occurs during adulthood; hyperresponsive tissues in the airways initiate an attack.

51. What are the stimuli for intrinsic asthma?
Respiratory infections, stress, exposure to cold, inhalation of irritants, exercise, and drugs.

52. What are the pathophysiological changes of asthma?
In the bronchi and bronchioles, there is inflammation of the mucosa with edema, bronchoconstriction caused by contraction of smooth muscle, there is increased secretions of thick mucus in the airways, and these changes create obstructed airways.

53. What are the symptoms of asthma?
Cough, marked dyspnea, chest tightness, wheezing, rapid and labored breathing, and expulsion of thick or sticky mucus.

54. What are the signs of asthma?
Tachycardia, pulsus paradoxus, hypoxia, respiratory alkalosis, respiratory acidosis, severe respiratory distress, and respiratory failure.

55. What is pulsus paradoxus?
When the pulse differs on inspiration and expiration, as seen in patients with asthma.

56. Hypoventilation can lead to what?
Hypoxemia and respiratory acidosis

57. What is status asthmaticus?
A persistent severe attack of asthma that does not respond to usual therapy; it is a medical emergency and may be fatal because of severe hypoxia and acidosis.

58. How do obstructive lung diseases affect the forced expiratory volume?
They cause a decrease in the FEV1/FVC ratio.

59. Cystic fibrosis affects what primary organs?
The lungs and pancreas.

60. A patient with cystic fibrosis shows what in the lungs?
Obstructed airflow in the bronchioles and small bronchi that causes permanent damage to the bronchial walls; infections that are commonly caused by pseudomonas aeruginosa and staphylococcus aureus.

61. What does CBABE stand for?
Cystic fibrosis, bronchiectasis, asthma, bronchitis (chronic) and emphysema.

62. Obstructive lung diseases involve breathing difficulty during what?

63. Obstructive lung diseases lead to what?
Breathing difficulties 

64. What is the most unique obstructive lung disease?
Cystic fibrosis

65. How does an obstructive lung disease affect exercise tolerance?
It reduces the ability to engage in physical activity due to dyspnea.

Final Thoughts

Obstructive lung diseases pose significant challenges to global health, accounting for considerable morbidity and mortality worldwide.

Early diagnosis, comprehensive management, and public awareness are imperative to reduce the burden of these diseases.

While advancements in medical research have provided better therapeutic options and improved patient outcomes, continued efforts are necessary to prevent disease onset, reduce exacerbations, and improve the quality of life for those affected.

Written by:

John Landry, BS, RRT

John Landry is a registered respiratory therapist from Memphis, TN, and has a bachelor's degree in kinesiology. He enjoys using evidence-based research to help others breathe easier and live a healthier life.


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