While it isn't nearly as recognizable as its cancerous kin, the lung disease sarcoidosis has become increasingly prevalent in recent years, a new study has found.
In fact, researchers from the Department of Radiology at the Ohio State University College of Medicine say that rates of the disease -- which causes tiny clumps of abnormal tissue (granulomas) to form in certain organs of the body, resulting in inflammation in the lymph nodes, lungs, liver, eyes, skin, or other tissues -- have more than doubled in the 15 years leading up to their study.
Examining medical records of 1.48 million patients in Franklin County, Ohio, a demographic profile that they say is nearly identical to that of the U.S., the study authors found that the prevalence of sarcoidosis increased steadily from 164 in 100,000 in 1995 to 330 in 100,000 in 2010. Their findings were published this month in the journal Respiratory Medicine.
Comedian Bernie Mac's death in 2008 shed some light on sarcoidosis. Mac suffered from a compromised immune system as a result of his battle with the disease, though it was in remission at the time of his death, his sister-in-law told People magazine.
Last year, actress Tisha Campbell-Martin responded to rumors that she was dying from sarcoidosis, telling People that she'd had the disease for nearly 10 years. "I was diagnosed with a lung disorder that some people walk around with and don’t even know they have," she said.
According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, the cause of sarcoidosis is unknown. What is known, however, is that the condition is more common among African Americans than whites and tends to develop between the ages of 20 and 40.
Doctors also believe that there's a genetic factor at play, since people who have a close blood relative with sarcoidosis are nearly five times as likely to develop the disease, according to the National Institutes of Health.
How sarcoidosis develops is also clear:
Normally, your immune system defends your body against foreign or harmful substances. For example, it sends special cells to protect organs that are in danger.
These cells release chemicals that recruit other cells to isolate and destroy the harmful substance. Inflammation occurs during this process. Once the harmful substance is gone, the cells and the inflammation go away.
In people who have sarcoidosis, the inflammation doesn't go away. Instead, some of the immune system cells cluster to form lumps called granulomas (gran-yu-LO-mas) in various organs in your body.
The researchers at Ohio State say the two-fold increase in sarcoidosis prevalence they observed is primarily related to improved detection and diagnostic approaches.
A study of sarcoidosis among women participating in the Black Women’s Health Study conducted last year by researchers from Boston University found the disease caused 25 percent of all deaths among women who had it. But others say the disease is rarely fatal.
"In half the cases, sarcoidosis heals naturally -- without any treatment," the American Lung Association maintains.
Don't smoke ... anything
Smoking is, hands down, the worst thing you can do to your lungs on a regular basis. There's no safe threshold when it comes to smoking, Dr. Edelman says; the more you smoke, the greater your risk of lung cancer and COPD, which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Secondhand smoke is harmful, too, and there's mounting evidence that even thirdhand smoke -- or just being in an environment where people have smoked -- is dangerous. It's not enough to skip only cigarettes. Pipes, cigars, or marijuana can harm lungs too. <strong>More from Health.com:</strong> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20474799,00.html" target="_hplink">10 Myths and Facts About COPD</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/wp/0,,20460859,00.html" target="_hplink">3 Ways to Manage COPD</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20443619,00.html" target="_hplink">The Worst Jobs for Your Lungs</a>
Fight for clean air
While U.S. air is cleaner than in the past, more than 154 million Americans still live in areas where air pollution is a threat to health, according to the <a href="http://www.stateoftheair.org/" target="_hplink">ALA's annual State of the Air report.</a> "Air pollution can not only make diseases like COPD and asthma worse, [but] it can also kill people," Dr. Edelman says. You can make a difference by supporting clean air laws and opposing efforts to cut regulation. On the individual level, cut your electricity use, drive less and avoid burning wood or trash.
Exercise in itself won't make your lungs stronger, Dr. Edelman says, but it will help you get more out of them. The better your cardiorespiratory fitness, the easier it is for your lungs to keep your heart and muscles supplied with oxygen. Regular exercise is particularly important if you have chronic lung disease; your lungs need all the help they can get. If cold air triggers your asthma symptoms, use a scarf or face mask to warm the air before it hits your lungs.
Beware of outdoor air pollution
In some areas, especially in the summer, ozone and other pollutants can make working out or even spending time outdoors an unhealthy proposition. People with a lung disease are particularly sensitive to air pollution. The U.S. government's <a href="http://www.airnow.gov/" target="_hplink">AIRNow web site</a>, provides up-to-date information on air quality, as well as an explanation of Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers. Sign up for <a href="http://www.enviroflash.info/" target="_hplink">EnviroFlash</a>, email alerts on your local air quality.
Improve indoor air
Air pollution isn't just an outdoor problem. There are a number of <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/thumbnails/0,,20368815,00.html" target="_hplink">indoor sources</a>, including fireplaces and wood-burning stoves, mold, pet dander, construction materials and even air fresheners and some candles. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends a three-pronged approach: Eliminate sources, improve ventilation and use <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20307209_1,00.html" target="_hplink">air cleaners</a>. Air cleaners remove particulate matter, but won't impact gases. For more info, check the <a href="http://www.epa.gov/iaq/" target="_hplink">EPA's Indoor Air Quality website</a>.
There is evidence that antioxidant-rich foods are good for your lungs. (Research suggests it has to be food, not supplements.) A 2010 study found that people who consumed the most cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, bok choy, kale and more) had almost half the risk of lung cancer compared to those who consumed the least. "All those nice, leafy green vegetables that have lots of antioxidants do seem to have a protective effect," says Dr. Edelman
Protect yourself on the job
Many jobs can put your lungs at risk, from construction work to styling hair. (Here are some of the <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20443619,00.html" target="_hplink">worst jobs for your lungs</a>.) In fact, occupational asthma accounts for approximately 15 percent of cases, says Dr. Edelman. Potential culprits include dust; particles; diacetyl, a chemical that adds a buttery flavor to food; paint fumes; and diesel exhaust, among others. If your employer provides protective equipment, wear it. If not, Dr. Edelman says, contact your union representative, the <a href="http://www.osha.gov/" target="_hplink">Occupational Safety and Health Administration</a>, or any state or local agency with the same function as OSHA.
Don't skimp on shots
Respiratory infections can be particularly devastating if you have COPD or other lung problems. Get the flu shot in time for flu season, and if you're 65 or older, get the pneumococcal vaccine too. Also, take steps to avoid infection: Wash your hands frequently, avoid crowds during peak flu season, get plenty of rest, eat well and keep your stress levels under control, too.
Stick to safe products
Many at-home activities -- cleaning, hobbies, home improvement -- can expose your lungs to harmful particles or gases. Protect yourself by choosing safer products, working in a well-ventilated area, and using a dust mask. (The ALA <a href="http://www.lungusa.org/healthy-air/home/resources/fiberglass.html" target="_hplink">offers tips</a> for working with fiberglass.) Avoid oil-based paints, which release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), and choose water-based paint instead. Cleaning products can contain harmful chemicals too, like VOCs, ammonia, and bleach; read labels before you buy. (The ALA <a href="http://www.healthhouse.org/tipsheets/TS_HealthyCleaning.pdf" target="_hplink">provides suggestions</a> for safer cleaning products.)
Check for radon
Radon is a naturally occurring radioactive gas produced by the breakdown of uranium in the ground. It typically leaks into a house through cracks in the foundation and walls. Radon is the main cause of lung cancer in nonsmokers, and the second-leading cause of the disease after smoking. Get your home tested; if radon levels are between 2 and 4 pCi/L, consider <a href="http://www.epa.gov/radon/pubs/consguid.html" target="_hplink">radon reduction</a>. There are no known safe levels of radon, so the lower, the better.
Know the warning signs
If you have a cough for more than a month, or if you have a hard time breathing with little or no physical exertion, you should see a doctor, according to the ALA. Wheezing, coughing up blood or coughing up phlegm for more than a month are also problematic, and if you have chest pain lasting a month or longer, get it checked out, particularly if breathing in or coughing makes it worse.
Control your condition
If you've got asthma or COPD, do your best to keep it under control. Preventive medications, such as inhaled corticosteroids, can cut your risk of asthma attacks, and rescue medications, such as albuterol inhalers, can stop symptoms like coughing or wheezing. Other <a href="http://www.health.com/health/condition/library/0,,20324390,00.html" target="_hplink">medications can control COPD</a>. Know your triggers and avoid them, if possible. Also do your best to stave off respiratory infections, which can exacerbate both conditions. <strong>More from Health.com:</strong> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20474799,00.html" target="_hplink">10 Myths and Facts About COPD</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/wp/0,,20460859,00.html" target="_hplink">3 Ways to Manage COPD</a> <a href="http://www.health.com/health/gallery/0,,20443619,00.html" target="_hplink">The Worst Jobs for Your Lungs</a>