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Australians too complacent about dangers of lung disease:When we think of killer diseases, cancer, dementia and heart disease often spring to mind. What most Australians don’t know is that 14 per cent of all deaths in Australia are the result of a lung condition and one in four people are currently living with lung disease.
Unfortunately, lung disease is often shrouded in stigma, and many people falsely believe the condition is only caused by a lifetime of smoking. In reality, anyone can get lung disease and your risk can be heightened by a number of factors aside from smoking, such as working in an environment that has exposed you to dust, gas and chemicals. Some lung diseases can be inherited, but many lung diseases have no known cause.
Because of the vast array of conditions which come under the umbrella of lung disease, many people are unaware that relatively common conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), bronchiectasis and asthma are actually considered lung diseases. Many people are also living undiagnosed because they simply don’t understand which symptoms to be aware of or how serious they can be.
As part of Lung Health Awareness Month in May, Professor Christine Jenkins, leading Respiratory Physician and Chair of Lung Foundation Australia, is urging Aussies to start educating themselves about lung health.
“Sadly, it’s an amplifying problem in the sense that if the community has the perception that lung disease is only caused by smoking, then people who suffer from lung diseases feel embarrassed to say they have the problem,” she says. “This means there’s a lack of discussion resulting in lack of awareness and late diagnosis, with people not understanding how to recognise lung disease because no-one wants to talk about it.”
As many as 1 in 7 Australians over 40 are living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and many don’t even know they have it, while approximately 12,500 are diagnosed with lung cancer annually – that’s 34 people a day. As a result, most lung cancers are diagnosed too late for curative treatment. Others are living with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary atrial hypertension, pleural mesothelioma, bronchiectasis and cystic fibrosis, just to name a few.
In almost every case of lung disease, the common symptom is breathlessness. It’s easy to put breathlessness down to weight gain, age or lack of fitness, but Jenkins says even in old age where lung function is naturally reduced, breathlessness and persistent coughs shouldn’t be ignored.
“We want people to realize that it’s not normal to be breathless, it’s not normal to have a persistent cough, it’s not normal to produce phlegm every day,” she explains. “And any of those things should cause you to see your doctor.”
Jenkins adds that no-smoking campaigns around the country have given people a false sense of immunity from lung disease. In reality, one in three women and one in ten men diagnosed with lung cancer have never smoked. “We’re victims of our own success in that Australia’s public health campaigns around smoking have ‘over-shocked’ people in a way, and now people feel convinced that if they haven’t smoked or have quit smoking, that they’re going to be fine,” she says.
When determining your risk of lung disease, the first port of call should be an online test, such as Lung Foundation Australia’s Lung Health Checklist, or a lung function test from your GP.
Unfortunately, GPs frequently don’t perform lung testing to assess breathlessness, and many patients find themselves having to explicitly ask for the test instead.
“Most GPs have the piece of equipment required, a spirometer, to detect if a person has a problem with their lungs.” Jenkins says. “It’s an electronic device that patients blow into that measures the amount of air they blow out and how fast they can blow it out.”
Research has shown that early detection is vital when it comes to improving patient outcomes for those living with lung disease, but many cases aren’t detected until it’s too late. Recent 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.
Smoking rehab centers play vital role in dealing with smoking habits
It’s not wise to wait until you’re extremely breathless before seeking help either. Breathlessness is a common side-effect of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but often by the time someone realises they’re regularly out of breath, the condition may have already reduced 50 per cent of their lung function. That’s why it’s so important to get in early, take lung health seriously and see a doctor when you notice changes.
With 15 per cent of over-55s experiencing breathlessness to the point they can’t keep up with their peers in walking and similar activities, Jenkins adds it’s important to know treatment is available. “Many of these people could receive good treatment and be greatly helped,” she says. “Not only can anyone get lung disease, but many lung diseases are treatable. Finding out exactly what you have and getting it diagnosed as early as possible is key.”