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General Approach to Patients With Respiratory Disorders

As with the evaluation of most patients, the approach to a patient with a respiratory system disorder begins with a thorough history and a focused physical examination. Many patients will subsequently undergo pulmonary function testing, chest imaging, blood and sputum analysis, a variety of serologic or microbiologic studies, and diagnostic procedures, such as bronchoscopy.
This stepwise approach is discussed in detail below.

Dyspnea and Cough
The cardinal symptoms of respiratory disease are dyspnea and cough. Dyspnea has many causes, some of which are not predominantly due to lung pathology. The words a patient uses to describe shortness of breath can suggest certain etiologies for dyspnea. Patients with obstructive lung disease often complain of “chest tightness” or “inability to get a deep breath,” whereas patients with congestive heart failure more commonly report “air hunger” or a sense of suffocation. The tempo of onset and the duration of a patient’s dyspnea are likewise helpful in determining the etiology. Acute shortness of breath is usually associated with sudden physiological changes, such as laryngeal edema, bronchospasm, myocardial infarction, pulmonary embolism, or pneumothorax. Patients with COPD and idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF) experience a gradual progression of dyspnea on exertion, punctuated by acute exacerbations of shortness of breath. In contrast, most asthmatics do not have daily symptoms, but experience intermittent episodes of dyspnea, cough, and chest tightness that are usually associated with specific triggers, such as an upper respiratory tract infection or exposure to allergens.
Specific questioning should focus on factors that incite dyspnea as well as on any intervention that helps resolve the patient’s shortness of breath. Asthma is commonly exacerbated by specific triggers, although this can also be true of COPD. Many patients with lung disease report dyspnea on exertion. Determining the degree of activity that results in shortness of breath gives the clinician a gauge of the patient’s degree of disability. Many patients adapt their level of activity to accommodate progressive limitation. For this reason, it is important, particularly in older patients, to delineate the activities in which they engage and how these activities have changed over time. Dyspnea on exertion is often an early symptom of underlying lung or heart disease and warrants a thorough evaluation.For cough, the clinician should inquire about the duration of the cough, whether or not it is associated with sputum production, and any specific triggers that induce it. Acute cough productive of phlegm is often a symptom of infection of the respiratory system, including processes affecting the upper airway (e.g., sinusitis, tracheitis), the lower airways (e.g., bronchitis, bronchiectasis), and the lung parenchyma (e.g., pneumonia). Both the quantity and quality of the sputum, including whether it is blood-streaked or frankly bloody, should be determined.
Hemoptysis warrants urgent evaluation.
Chronic cough (defined as that persisting for >8 weeks) is commonly associated with obstructive lung diseases, particularly asthma, COPD and chronic bronchiectasis, as well as “nonrespiratory” diseases, such as gastroesophageal reflux and postnasal drip. Diffuse parenchymal lung diseases, including IPF, frequently present as a persistent, nonproductive cough. All causes of cough are not respiratory in origin, and assessment should encompass a broad differential, including cardiac and gastrointestinal diseases as well as psychogenic causes.

Additional Symptoms
Patients with respiratory disease may report wheezing, which is suggestive of airways disease, particularly asthma. Hemoptysis can be a symptom of a variety of lung diseases, including infections of the respiratory tract, bronchogenic carcinoma, and pulmonary embolism. In addition, chest pain or discomfort can be respiratory in origin. As the lung parenchyma is not innervated with pain fibers, pain in the chest from respiratory disorders usually results from either diseases of the parietal pleura (e.g., pneumothorax) or pulmonary vascular diseases (e.g., pulmonary hypertension). As many diseases of the lung can result in strain on the right side of the heart, patients may also present with symptoms of cor pulmonale, including abdominal bloating or distention and pedal edema.

Additional History
A thorough social history is an essential component of the evaluation of patients with respiratory disease. All patients should be asked about current or previous cigarette smoking, as this exposure is associated with many diseases of the respiratory system, including COPD, bronchogenic lung cancer, and select parenchymal lung diseases (e.g., desquamative interstitial pneumonitis and pulmonary Langerhans cell histiocytosis). For most of these disorders, increased cigarette smoke exposure (i.e., cigarette pack-years) increases the risk of disease. “Secondhand smoke” also increases risk for some respiratory disorders, so patients should also be asked about parents, spouses, or housemates who smoke. Possible inhalational exposures at work (e.g., asbestos, silica) or home (e.g., wood smoke, excrement from pet birds) should be explored. Travel predisposes to certain infections of the respiratory tract, most notably tuberculosis. Potential exposure to fungi is increased in specific geographic regions or climates (e.g., Histoplasma capsulatum), so exposures to these regions should be determined. Associated symptoms of fever and chills should raise the suspicion of infective etiologies, both pulmonary and systemic. A comprehensive review of systems may suggest rheumatologic or autoimmune disease presenting with respiratory tract manifestations. Questions should focus on joint pain or swelling, rashes, dry eyes, dry mouth, or constitutional symptoms. In addition, carcinomas from a variety of primary sources commonly metastasize to the lung and cause respiratory symptoms. Finally, therapy for other conditions, including both irradiation and medications, can result in diseases of the chest.

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Pulmonary symptoms, findings and investigations




Pleural Effusion

Approach to wheezing in children


Pulmonary Function Testing

Toxicological risk during lactation

Toxicological lactation category I - the drug and/or its metabolites are either not eliminated through breast milk or are not toxic to the newborn and cannot lead to the development of absolutely any toxic reactions and adverse consequences for his health in the near and long term. Breast-feeding does not need to be discontinued while taking a given drug that falls into this toxicological lactation category.

Toxicological lactation category II - the drug and its metabolites are also eliminated through breast milk, but the plasma:milk ratio is very low and/or the excreted amounts cannot generate toxic reactions in the newborn due to various reasons, including degradation of the drug in the acid pool of the stomach of the newborn. Breastfeeding does not need to be discontinued while taking this medicine.

Toxicological lactation category III - the drug and/or its metabolites generate in breast milk equal to plasma concentrations or higher, and therefore the possible development of toxic reactions in the newborn can be expected. Breastfeeding should be discontinued for the period corresponding to the complete elimination of the drug or its metabolites from the mother's plasma.

Toxicological lactation category IV - the drug and/or its metabolites generate a plasma:milk ratio of 1:1 or higher and/or have a highly toxic profile for both the mother and the newborn, therefore their administration is incompatible with breastfeeding and it should to stop completely, and not just for the period of taking the drug, or to look for a less toxic therapeutic alternative.