1 in 20 Australians over 55 have this illness… So why aren’t we talking about it?

One in 20 Australians over the age of 55 is living with this illness and when something is that common, we have to ask, why aren’t we talking about it?

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a name that overarches several different lung diseases. Some are more familiar to us like emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic asthma, but just because we know what they are, doesn’t mean we understand what it is like to live with it.

The reality is that people suffering from COPD are living with a chronic illness that impedes on their quality of life. There are many people out there suffering from this illness but so few of us realise the effects of it. Today, we’re shedding some light on this, to help people like you and I, hopefully help others.

Darrin Penola is the Clinical Nurse Consultant for Respiratory Medicine at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. He has been working with COPD patients for over 15 years and he gave us some valuable insight into what living with the disease is really like.

He told us that COPD refers to a range of conditions that cause an obstruction of airflow in the lungs. The trouble with these illnesses is that they can’t be cured, and instead the symptoms are chronic, that patients have to live with everyday.

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Symptoms like shortness of breath, cough and fatigue are quite general and this has led people to put them down to things like being overweight, unfit or being old leading to misdiagnosis. These symptoms along with chest tightness, wheezing and increased sputum production are all symptoms that warrant investigation. The trouble with these symptoms is that many people find they interfere more with daily life in the morning and evenings.

Patients often struggle with breathing in the morning and getting up can be quite slow. Mr Penola told us that patients often aren’t fully at their peak until mid-morning. This is because overnight they can develop hypoxia, a condition that is caused by not enough oxygen reaching the muscles. Mr Penola also told us that oxygen is important for energy production in the muscles, so when this is impacted, energy supply is limited and people can feel very lethargic.

The same troubles can occur at the end of the day before bedtime as the limited energy production they have during the day is expended, and breathing becomes increasingly difficult.

“The problem is that lungs don’t restore to normal function,” Mr Penola told us. And this means that the ongoing battle can, if not managed, affect the quality of life for patients. Many are in the prime of their lives as parents or people who are still in the workforce, so what should we do to help our friends and family members if we suspect them of having COPD?

For starters, there are three main factors that put people at risk of developing COPD. Mr Penola told us that these include, a history of smoking, are aged over 40 years old and have regular breathlessness. Being aware of these risk factors and looking out for them in your family and friends is the first step to helping and supporting them.

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Mr Penola also told us that if we suspect a friend or family member has COPD, to start with a visit to the GP. He told us, “Make sure they see their GP and tell them that they have been experiencing these symptoms and ask for a diagnosis.”

The future for people suffering from COPD can be bright if they use management techniques early on. Mr Penola told us that there are a variety of medications available to assist, including treatments that can help alleviate morning and night-time symptoms. In addition, Penola said people can improve their quality of life by ensuring they are eating healthy, keeping socially active, keeping physically active, getting enough sleep and having strong support networks.

It is a silent disease that so many Australians over 55 are living with, but very few are talking about. With more education and understanding, we can help our friends and family to manage COPD effectively.

If you or your friends or family are feeling breathless, particularly in the morning or at night, make sure you speak to your healthcare professional to explore this further.

A new campaign based on a recent publication from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reveals locations which are amongst the top 20 most breath-taking places across Australia. Breath-taking that is, in reflecting some of the highest rates of hospital admissions for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious long-term lung disease.

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This post was sponsored by A. Menarini Australia Pty Ltd. Level 8, 67 Albert Avenue, Chatswood NSW 2067. Tel: (02) 9080 7200. ABN 62 116 935 758. BRE-AU-0244. 28 November 2014.