Lung health and preventing lung disease remain a significant concern for military veterans and contractors. Depending on your deployment location(s) and job-related functions in the military, you may be at risk of developing lung disease due to past exposure to tobacco use, workplace, and environmental exposures. You should discuss your deployment history and potential hazards associated with deployment and job-related functions with your healthcare provider and have lung function tests, or pulmonary function tests (PFTs), to ensure healthy lung function and help identify early warning signs of lung disease.
If you were deployed, you may have been exposed to potentially hazardous conditions that put you at risk for developing lung disease. The longer you were exposed to these conditions, the more at risk you are for developing acute respiratory symptoms and increasing your risk of developing a chronic lung disease. Some of these hazardous conditions may include:
- Oil well fires
- Sand, dust particulates
- Open-air burn pits
- Extreme temperatures and toxic air pollutants
- Exposure to asbestos from older, crumbing, or damaged buildings
- Carbon monoxide in diesel exhaust
- Tobacco smoke and electronic cigarette aerosol
In addition to air pollutants exposed during deployment, your job-related function(s) for the military may place you at a higher risk for developing lung disease-related symptoms. If you are still working, be aware of the hazards and safe handling procedures for materials on the job. This information must be available to you and usually is provided in Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS), military/employer instructions and container warning label.
Military service members are more likely to use tobacco products. While there is a long history of tobacco use in the military, ending the addiction to tobacco use has many health benefits. In addition to health benefits, you may find reasons to quit smoking, vaping, or chewing as motivators to end your addiction.
Talk to your healthcare provider about your interest in quitting smoking, vaping, or chewing. Discuss what to expect while quitting, how to prepare for challenges, medications, or nicotine replacement therapy, as well as tools to manage stressors like breathing exercises.
Quit tobacco for good, and do not switch to other tobacco products like e-cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, or other tobacco products. E-cigarettes are in fact tobacco products. Despite what e-cigarette companies, like Juul want you to believe, switching to vaping (or e-cigarettes) is not quitting, it only changes how you use tobacco.
The American Lung Association is here to support you in your quit smoking journey.
Exposure to pollutants while on active duty can impact many of the body systems and the health effects may be extensive. Many of these may not appear until years after exposure. In this section, we are going to focus primarily on health effects that impact the respiratory system. Talk to your healthcare provider to learn more about other potential health impacts.
Respiratory symptoms may present as:
- Phlegm or mucus production
- Shortness of breath
- Coughing up blood
- Chronic chest pain
- Exacerbation or worsening of other lung diseases like asthma
- Acute Bronchitis
If you are experiencing any of these warning signs of lung disease, it is important to talk with your health care provider right away. Make a list of symptoms, when these symptoms started, and if you are taking any medication that may relieve these symptoms. Depending on your symptoms, your healthcare provider may recommend a diagnostic test or procedure like spirometry or pulmonary function tests.
- Tobacco use increases your risk of developing lung diseases, including lung cancer. It also increases your risk of death from cancer, also including lung cancer. Lung cancer screening is recommended for individuals who meet certain high-risk criteria. Right now, this criterion does not take occupational exposure into consideration but a discussion with your healthcare provider may identify occupational exposures that do warrant chest imaging different from the standard lung cancer screening approach. Learn if you are eligible for lung cancer screening based on your age and smoking history by completing a simple 4-question quiz and talk to your healthcare provider about your cancer screening options.
- Sleep disorders like obstructive sleep apnea (OSA) are common in military service members. Obstructive sleep apnea is a sleep condition involving a blocking in the airway during sleep, causing breathing to stop. The main symptom is snoring, and it can lead to long term, serious health conditions.
If you meet the following criteria, you are considered to be at “high risk” for developing lung cancer and screening is recommended:
- 50-80 years of age
- Have a 20 pack-year history of smoking (this means 1 pack a day for 20 years, 2 packs a day for 10 years, etc.)
- AND are a current smoker, or have quit within the last 15 years
The VA provides an annual low-dose computed tomography (CT) scan. This requires laying down on a table where an x-ray machine takes detailed images of your lungs using minimal radiation. The scan only takes a few minutes and doctors use the images to look for signs of lung cancer. If you are at high risk for developing lung cancer, speak with your VA healthcare team to discuss your screening options.
There are a few steps you can take to reduce your risk of lung disease.
- Work with your employer if you are still working to ensure access to the appropriate protective equipment. Make sure you are using it correctly and whenever it is indicated.
- Attend repeated trainings on how to minimize your exposure to harmful chemicals.
- Reduce your exposure to lung irritants outside of work. Don't smoke or vape and avoid secondhand smoke and aerosol whenever possible. Test your home for high levels of radon (the second leading cause of lung cancer), and if it has high levels, be sure to mitigate it. Stay inside on poor air quality days whenever possible.
- Discuss with your healthcare provider vaccines like the flu, pneumonia, and COVID-19 that help protect you against infectious respiratory illnesses.
We would love for you to follow in the footsteps of many other veterans and get involved with our mission. Here's how:
- Find support to better manage lung disease through the Lung HelpLine, Patient & Caregiver Network, Better Breathers Clubs, and Inspire Online Communities.
- Become a LUNG FORCE hero and inspire, encourage, and empower others to raise their voice about lung cancer.
- Are you a health professional? Join our Healthcare Professionals for Clean Air and Climate Action!
- Attend a LUNG FORCE Walk or Fight for Air Climb
Page last updated: June 16, 2023