Make your lungs a priority: The causes, signs and symptoms of lung disease

May 22, 2020
Seven million Australians currently live with a lung condition. Source: Getty.

It’s probably safe to say that most of us take our lungs for granted. It’s not until we experience trouble breathing that we take notice. But the truth is, breathing is probably the most important thing our body does.

And as winter approaches, it’s now more important than ever to make your lungs a priority, Mark Brooke, Lung Foundation Australia CEO, tells Starts at 60. He says recognising the early warning signs and symptoms of lung disease is the first step — it could even save your life. “It’s incredibly important that Australians understand that your lungs are the most important part of your body,” Brooke says.

What is lung disease?

Lung disease is any problem in the lungs that prevents the lungs from working properly. Seven million Australians currently live with a lung condition, but research from the Lung Foundation Australia released last year shows that almost half of all Australians rarely or never think about their lung health, even though lung disease is ultimately responsible for one in seven deaths every year.

There are over 30 types of lung disease, ranging from asthma and influenza, to occupational lung disease and lung cancer, which fall into three main categories: airway diseases, long tissue diseases and long circulation diseases.

Airway diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, affect the airways that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs. Lung tissue diseases, such as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), affect the structure of the lung tissue. Lung circulation diseases, such as pulmonary arterial hypertension (PAH), meanwhile affect the blood vessels in the lungs.

Age, exposure to toxic fumes or cigarette smoke, and genetics are risk factors for lung disease. But many people make the mistake of thinking they won’t have any problems if they’re not in an ‘at risk’ group. Turns out, anyone can get lung disease, even if they’ve never smoked and have no family history of lung problems.

Early detection is key

Early signs of lung disease are easy to overlook. Often, people put them down to ageing or lack of fitness. But, if you’re experiencing respiratory symptoms such as breathlessness or a persistent cough during the Covid-19 pandemic or even during winter when nasty bugs and viruses are common, don’t ignore them. The earlier lung disease can be found, the more likely it can be successfully treated.

“If you’ve got a new, persistent or changed cough, it’s really important that you don’t dismiss those early symptoms and go talk to your doctor,” Brooke says.

He says you can use this simple two-minute questionnaire to help you better understand your symptoms. Key signs to look out for include:

• 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.

“If people are feeling a bit uncertain, have a chat to your doctor, do the lung health checklist, [and] really think about those early symptoms,” Brooke advises. “It’s really important that Australians take their lung health as seriously as they would take their heart health, or any other condition.”

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