Living with the chronic health condition no one is talking about

It’s the second leading cause of avoidable hospital admissions, affects one in five over 60s and is as debilitating as diabetes or mobility issues. But this condition receives little to no attention or funding.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the collective term for a number of lung diseases that prevent proper breathing, the most common forms of the disease are emphysema and chronic bronchitis.

Although as many as 30 per cent older Australians may suffer from COPD, according to the Lung Foundation, half of these people don’t even know it. Symptoms include breathlessness, wheezing, coughing, fatigue, a blueish tinge to the skin, and a susceptibility to chest infections.

For those who live with COPD, they are constantly aware of the condition and how it affects their life. Sufferers may cut back on physical activities due to the uncomfortable feelings of breathlessness they experience when they exercise. As the condition worsens, this can extend to almost any exertion, making simple daily activities like showering, dressing or making a cup of tea, become almost impossible. Depression and anxiety often affect those with COPD.

Starts at 60 community member Fran Spears says, “I was diagnosed with mild chronic bronchitis in 2009. I used to smoke but had not had a cigarette for nine years before that. They say that they cannot determine for sure if it was just my smoking that caused this.

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“The most frustrating part for me is that every aspect of your life is affected by how you breathe yet this disease is swept under the carpet so often. There is a stigma attached to it. You have to be nearly dead to be on the waiting list for a new lung but I struggle every day,” says Fran.

While smoking is the most significant risk factor, including passive smoking, particularly in the infant phase when lungs are developing, up to 20 per cent of sufferers never smoked cigarettes.

Women are more likely to suffer the condition and poorly handled asthma can develop into COPD. The Lung Foundation Australia estimates that more han 1.45 million Australians have some form of COPD and 750,000 of these have symptoms that affect their daily lives.

Fran says, “I have to make sure I get in all the exercise I can manage every day to keep my muscles in as good a condition as I can or my lungs will deteriorate quickly. If I get a cold it usually develops into a chest infection and pneumonia is always a worry.

“I have two inhalers I take every day and I have medication on hand for emergencies such as a cough I cant shake. It is hard to exercise and a lot of people give up but then that is the only thing that has be to shown slow down the disease.

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“Living with COPD is an every day struggle which I believe is not taken seriously enough. I am only 62 and want the opportunity to live a much longer life, breathing a little easier.

“The hardest part of this disease is nobody understands that, even if you have it in its mildest form, even small things like walking the dog or taking a shower can be a chore. Dont get me wrong, I am lucky. With any luck I wont get worse quickly because I exercise and there are literally thousands worse off than me. But we need help now and need it recognised for what it is  – a life threatening disease that so far can’t be cured.”

For more information, or if you have concerns about your own health, visit your GP.

Do you or does someone you love suffer COPD? Could you have this condition without realising it? Share your stories and experiences.