Recognising the early signs of lung disease to ensure effective intervention

Many Aussies have a serious lung condition but don’t know they have it. Source: Getty

Breathing isn’t something we usually take much notice of. It’s just something we naturally do. But lung disease can happen to anyone and with winter approaching, it’s time to make your lungs a priority.

Mark Brooke, Lung Foundation Australia CEO, tells Starts at 60, “getting to know how your lungs function and recognising the early warning signs of lung disease and lung cancer leads to better treatment outcomes and it could even save your life.”

“Australians must take their lung health as seriously as they would take their heart health or any other condition,” Brooke says.

One in every three Australians lives with a lung condition such as lung disease or lung cancer, which are  the second-leading cause of death in this country. But research from the Lung Foundation Australia shows that almost half of all Australians rarely or never think about their lung health.

What is lung disease?

Lung disease is any problem in the lungs that prevents the lungs from working properly.

There are more than 30 types of lung disease, ranging from asthma and influenza to occupational lung disease and lung cancer. These lung diseases fall into three main categories:

  • 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), affect the blood vessels in the lungs.

Who can get lung disease?

Lung disease is often misunderstood. Unfortunately, it is often shrouded in stigma, and many people falsely believe the condition is only caused by a lifetime of smoking.

While age, exposure to toxic fumes or cigarette smoke, and genetics can increase your risk, the truth is that anyone can get lung disease or lung cancer, including men, women, children, smokers, ex-smokers and those who have never smoked.

Many people make the mistake of thinking they won’t have any problems if they’re not in an ‘at risk’ group when the reality is many lung diseases have no known cause.

What are the symptoms and early warning signs?

Regular lung health check-ups enable you to adopt preventive measures to maintain the health of your lungs. Source: Getty

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 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 these are the key signs to look out for:

  • 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 with 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.”

Why it’s best to act early

Respiratory Care Nurse, Amanda Curran, explains you shouldn’t be concerned about talking to a doctor about your symptoms “too soon”. Breathlessness or persistent cough should always be checked as soon as you start to notice it.

“It is so important to talk to your doctor and get the right diagnosis and the right treatment. Treatment aims to prevent further damage, reduce the risk of complications and ease some of the symptoms” says Curran.

Figures released by Cancer Australia show that just 18 per cent of lung cancer patients are diagnosed at an early stage, while many other lung conditions develop for years before they’re addressed.

Winter is coming

With the cold and flu season well on its way, it is more important than ever to pay attention to your lung health.

Curran explains that “the most common trigger for a flare-up or exacerbation of a lung condition is a cold or flu virus, and as a result, flare-ups are more common during the winter months.

“It is important that you can identify the early signs so you can start treatment as soon as possible to prevent further damage, reduce the risk of complications and ease some of the symptoms,” Curran says.


This article was originally published on May 10, 2022, and has been updated on May 12, 2023.

IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.

When was the last time you had your lungs checked?

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