August 2016
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Airway Disease in Women

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Dear Friends,

Did you know that women may be at greater risk of developing respiratory diseases such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) compared to men? Join us this month as we review several lung diseases that have a significant impact on women’s health.  


The Institute Staff

Airway Disease in Women   
Our lungs perform the essential function of delivering oxygen to our bloodstream and releasing carbon dioxide back into the environment. Lung diseases may hamper our ability to perform this critical task which can lead to serious medical consequences. In this month’s newsletter we will be reviewing lung diseases which affect the airways, or network of tubes within our lungs, that carry oxygen and other gases into, and out of, our lungs. Over the last decade, it has become apparent that women may be affected by airway diseases more than men [1,2]. Let’s take a closer look into how their onset, symptoms, and severity might differ for women.

Asthma is chronic lung disease characterized by airway constriction or tightening which affects over 26 million Americans. When a person has an “asthma attack,” their airways become inflamed and constricted which limits amount of air that can flow through. Wheezing, one of the most recognizable symptoms of asthma, occurs upon inhalation or exhalation and can sound like whistling or a rattle. Other symptoms of asthma include: Coughing, chest tightness, and shortness of breath.

Asthma can affect men and women differently throughout their lifetime [3]. For example, children have a higher incidence of asthma compared to adults, and during this period, asthma affects boys more than girls. However, after puberty it begins to affect women more than men. There is also evidence to suggest that women may have more severe asthma symptoms. Women are more likely to require hospitalization and spend a longer time in the hospital than men [4,5].

The female sex hormones, estrogen and progesterone, may contribute to how the lung functions (air flow and gas exchange) as well as contributing to inflammation which occurs during an asthma attack [1]. This is likely a complex process and more research is necessary to determine exactly how it contributes to the development of asthma. 

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disorder 
According to the American Lung Association , chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) affects 4.8% of the population in Illinois. COPD is a progressive airway disease which causes the airways to become inflamed, lose their elasticity, and become clogged with mucus. The most common risk factor for developing COPD is smoking but, it can also be caused by long term exposure to chemicals, dust, fumes, and smoke from the environment. Those with COPD may experience the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Coughing
  • Chest tightness 
  • Wheezing
  • Feeling tired or lethargic 
    Originally, it was thought that COPD was a “man’s disease.” Today, we know that this simply isn’t the case. Currently, there are over 7 million women in the United States diagnosed with COPD [6]. Research suggests that women may experience earlier-onset of COPD and greater severity of symptoms [7,8]. Moreover, deaths resulting from COPD are higher in women than men [6].  This could be attributed to the fact that women are more susceptible to lung damage from smoking and other environmental pollutants than men [6-8]. Additionally, estrogen and progesterone may play a role in lung inflammation, as previously mentioned, but less is known about its role in the progression of COPD.   
    1. Pinkerton et al., Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2015; 192(1):11-16. 
    2. Raghavan and Jain. Respirology. 2015; 21(3):449-459. 
    3. Carey et al., Trends Endocrniol Metab. 2007; 18(8):308-313.
    4. Chasm et al., Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2015; 115(1):70-2.e1.
    5. Hasegawa et al., Ann Allergy Asthma Immunol. 2015; 115(6):553-5.e1.
    6. American Lung Association    
    7. Sorheim et al., Thorax. 2010; 65(6):480-485. 
    8. Barnes, P.J. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2016; 193(8):813-814.

    Images: National Institutes of Health, National Heart Lung and Blood Institute 

    Author: Nicole C. Woitowich, PhD, Director of Science Outreach and Education, Women’s Health Research Institute. 
    Institute Happenings 
    Do you have a group of friends or colleagues interested in learning more about topics in women's health and medicine? 

    The WHRI can provide your group or organization with relevant information about many women's health issues in a way that is easy for everyone to understand. 

    Contact the WHRI Director of Science Outreach and Education, Dr. Nicole Woitowich, at or (312) 503-1385 for more information! 
    Upcoming Events 

    September 13th, 2016 12:00pm-1:00pm:  The Women's Health Research Institute's monthly research forum featuring Dr. Melissa Brown
    "Why Sex Matters in Multiple Sclerosis and Other Autoimmune Disease

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