Tracheal are considered rare, but they threaten your life and quality of life. The team at Miami Cancer Institute is armed and ready to fight – providing the most effective care for these diseases. You’ll also have access to support and services to help you and your family before, during and after treatment.

What are tracheal diseases?

Tracheal diseases affect the trachea (windpipe), the airway that extends downward from the larynx (voice box) and branches into two airways that lead to the lungs, called the left and right bronchi. Each bronchi divides into smaller tubes in a pattern that resembles an upside-down tree, with the trachea as the tree trunk. The trachea can be felt in the front of the neck. Several types of malignant (cancerous) and benign (noncancerous) can affect the trachea.

Medical illustration of the respiratory system.

What are the types of tracheal diseases?

There are many types of tracheal diseases, both cancerous and noncancerous.

Tracheal and bronchial tumors

Tumors that arise in the trachea and bronchi are rare. The vast majority of tracheal and bronchial tumors in adults are cancerous.

Some types of cancerous tracheal and bronchial tumors are:

  • Squamous cell carcinoma - This is the most common type of tracheal tumor. It is fast-growing cancer and usually develops in the lower portion of the trachea. Squamous cell carcinoma often penetrates the wall of the airway as it grows, which can cause ulcers and bleeding in the trachea.
  • Adenoid cystic carcinoma - These slow-growing tumors eventually close off the airway if untreated, but are less likely to penetrate the wall of the trachea.
  • Carcinoid tumors - These slow-growing tumors are more likely to develop in the bronchi than the trachea. They arise from neuroendocrine cells, which produce hormones such as serotonin. Carcinoid tumors can occur at any age, but are most common between the ages of 40 and 60.

Some types of noncancerous tracheal and bronchial tumors include:

  • Papilloma -The most common type of benign tracheal tumor in children, papillomas are cauliflower-like tumors thought to be caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV). These tumors can also transform into squamous cell carcinoma. Papillomatosis refers to multiple papilloma tumors.
  • Chondromas - These firm nodules form from cartilage. Though rare, chondromas can occur in the larynx (voice box) or trachea, and most commonly affect middle-aged men.
  • Hemangiomas -This type of benign tracheal tumor involves an abnormal buildup of blood vessels in the trachea.
Tracheal stenosis

Tracheal stenosis is a narrowing or constriction of the trachea.

Tracheobronchomalacia

Tracheobronchomalacia occurs when the airways collapse during breathing or coughing. Some people are born with a very rare form of tracheobronchomalacia called tracheobronchomegaly (also known as giant trachea or Mounier-Kuhn syndrome). People with this condition have an abnormally wide or dilated trachea and bronchi and often have respiratory infections.

What are the risk factors for tracheal diseases?

Risk factors vary by disease. In some cases, no cause for a tracheal disease can be identified.

Adenoid cystic carcinomas are found in men and women between the ages of 40 and 60. Smoking is not a risk factor for this type of cancer.

Squamous cell carcinoma is more common in men than in women, and smoking is the main risk factor.

Carcinoid tumors can occur at any age, but are most common between the ages of 40 and 60.

Most cases develop when scar tissue develops in a person’s trachea due to prolonged intubation — when a breathing tube is inserted into the trachea to help maintain breathing during a medical procedure — or from a tracheostomy, surgery to create an opening in the neck to access the trachea.

Tracheal stenosis can develop when scar tissue develops in a person’s trachea due to prolonged intubation — when a breathing tube is inserted into the trachea to help maintain breathing during a medical procedure — or from a tracheostomy, surgery to create an opening in the neck to access the trachea. It can also develop from external injury to the throat; a benign or malignant tumor pressing on the trachea; certain autoimmune disorders (polychondritis, sarcoidosis, papillomatosis, amyloidosis, and Wegener’s granulomatosis); and infections. Tracheal stenosis can sometimes be a side effect of radiation therapy used to treat a tumor in the head or neck.

Tracheobronchomalacia most commonly develops from a type of lung disease called chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is usually caused by smoking. Other causes of tracheobronchomalacia include:

  • Repeated infections
  • Injury after prolonged intubation, when a breathing tube is inserted into the trachea to help maintain breathing during a medical procedure
  • Injury from a tracheostomy, which is a surgery to create an opening in the neck to access the trachea
  • Tumors or blood vessels pressing on the windpipe
  • Chronic inflammation
  • Having a breathing tube inserted for a long time

What can you do to prevent tracheal diseases?

The most important thing you can do to prevent cancerous tracheal diseases is to quit smoking — or never start. Quitting can also help in the treatment and management of other tracheal diseases. Talk to your doctor if you need help quitting; most people do.

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