In Lung Health on Tuesday 30th Apr, 2019

Would you know if you had lung disease? Most older Aussies don’t

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If you have a cough that won’t go away, talk to your GP – it could be a sign of lung disease. Source: Getty

Do you get out of breath frequently, even if you aren’t doing anything particularly strenuous? Have you got a persistent cough that just won’t go away but no other symptoms of a cold?

Or perhaps you just feel a bit tired or have a tickle in your throat that goes away after a while? None of these niggling health issues seem like the kind of thing to bother your doctor about. After all, nobody wants to be that person who’s always talking about their poor health and bugging their hardworking GP.

However, the tough, ‘she’ll be right’ attitude so many Aussies have when it comes to their health can have fatal consequences, because plenty of people fail to realise that what they’re dismissing as a little cough is actually a serious lung condition.

Anyone can get lung disease

Research by Lung Foundation Australia found that almost half of Australians don’t really think about their lung health, even though lung disease ultimately is responsible for one in seven deaths every year.

There are actually more than 30 types of lung disease, which fall into three main categories.

  • Airway diseases: These diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), affect the airways that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs. They usually cause a narrowing or blockage of the airways.
  • Lung tissue diseases: These diseases, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), affect the structure of the lung tissue. Scarring or inflammation of the tissue makes the lungs unable to expand fully (restrictive lung disease). This makes it hard for the lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
  • Lung circulation diseases: These diseases, such as pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), affect the blood vessels in the lungs. They are caused by clotting, scarring or inflammation of the blood vessels. They affect the ability of the lungs to absorb oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

While the risk factors for lung disease are fairly well-known – age, exposure to toxic fumes or cigarette smoke, and genetics – many people make the mistake of thinking they won’t have any problems if they don’t fit those obvious risk profiles. On the contrary, anyone can get lung disease, even if they have never smoked and have no family history of lung problems.

Early detection is essential

The symptoms of lung disease tend to appear gradually and can seem innocuous at first. This means that many people tend to think they are just experiencing a normal part of getting older or becoming less fit, and simply adjust their daily activities to their ‘new normal’ instead of getting help.

Instead, if you are experiencing any of the symptoms below, it’s important that you make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible. You can use this two-minute checklist to help you better understand your symptoms, and even show your GP your results so they fully understand what you’re experiencing.

  • A new, persistent or changed cough
  • You are coughing up mucus, phlegm or blood
  • You get breathless more easily than others your age
  • Chest tightness or wheeze
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Chest pain and fatigue
  • Sudden weight loss.

Knowing the early warning signs of lung disease can help you access treatment before the disease becomes serious or even life-threatening.

For example, early diagnosis and management programs of COPD can greatly reduce its impact on your quality of life. Even better, the earlier COPD is detected and treated, the slower it progresses and the less likely it is to result in hospitalisation and death.

The same goes for what most of us consider to be the most serious lung condition: lung cancer. Research by Pathology Queensland, University of the Sunshine Coast, Sunshine Coast Hospital and Health Service and Cancer Second Opinion, that involved analysing more than 1,000 patient records, found no clear link between the patient’s age and whether or not they beat their cancer.

“Our study shows that it doesn’t matter whether you’re 70 or whether you’re 40, getting diagnosed early is what counts,” biomedical scientist and lead researcher Thys Matthews says.

Patients whose lung cancer was discovered at stage 1 (the earliest point of detection) were four times more likely to survive than patients who were diagnosed at stage 4 (the most advanced stage), the researchers found.

How to identify a serious lung health problem

As we explained earlier, the symptoms of lung disease can easily be attributed to any number of causes – some more sinister than others.

For example, pneumonia is easy to mistake for the common cold or influenza, as the early signs like a sore throat and runny nose are similar. A cough could be caused by something in the environment, but it could also be caused by illness or by COPD. Sometimes breathlessness during certain activities really is due to a lack of fitness – but if you’ve been keeping up your exercise levels, don’t be quick to dismiss your difficulty getting a breath as just a sign of age.

Given that anyone can get lung disease – young or old, male or female– it’s vital to know the symptoms so you or a loved one can get diagnosed early. Curing or managing your lung condition is vital to ensure you live the healthiest and longest life possible.

Lung Foundation Australia has a handy two-minute checklist that will tell you if your lungs are healthy or not. Use it to find out if you’re at risk of lung disease and share it with your friends and family so they can too – you could be saving their life.

Have you or a loved one been diagnosed with lung disease? How did you first know something was wrong?

Important information: The information provided on this website is of a general nature and information purposes only. It does not take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. It is not personalised health advice and must not be relied upon as such. Before making any decisions about your health or changes to medication, diet and exercise routines you should determine whether the information is appropriate in terms of your particular circumstances and seek advice from a medical professional.

Know, Plan and Act this Winter

Almost 1 in 3 Australians has a lung disease, yet many people tend to put the symptoms down to getting older or being unfit. Getting an early diagnosis is critical to improving outcomes and saving lives. Don’t guess, know the symptoms.

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