About lung health

22.07.2020

Most of the time, our lungs work without us being aware of it. The diaphragm does around 80 percent of the work, helping our lungs inhale and exhale up to 9,000 litres of air every day. That can rise to over 100 litres of air a minute during vigorous exercise.

We think of lungs as crucial for breathing, but what about talking, singing, shouting and laughing? They would all be compromised without healthy lungs.

It’s important to stress, you don’t have to be a smoker to contract lung disease. Around 12,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer each year and around 20 percent of people who die of lung cancer have never been smokers.

Here are six things you can do to help keep your lungs healthy.

If you smoke, quit now

Tobacco is the only legal drug which if taken exactly as intended will kill about half of those people who use it.” Australian Lung Foundation.

Tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds. There is a clear link between smoking and just about every lung disease, from cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to asthma. Smokers are also more likely to develop heart disease, stroke, cancer, osteoporosis and a range of other diseases. Smoking worsens symptoms of asthma and other chronic respiratory diseases, and harms nearly every organ in your body. Check out more statistics on smoking, plus useful quit smoking advice to start the smoke-free journey.

You may be able to claim for a quit smoking program if your CBHS Extras cover includes CBHS Wellness benefits. Call our Member Care team on 1300 654 124 to find out more.

Don’t vape

The vaping craze has led to a spate of mysterious lung illnesses and deaths that scientists believe are linked to vaping.

Evidence is emerging of a possible link between vaping and lung disease. The liquids used in e-cigarettes can contain harmful substances that may severely damage lungs.

Several deaths have been reported in the US, and lung disease in patients with a history of e-cigarette use is on the rise.

In November 2019, American surgeons performed a double lung transplant on a young male patient in Michigan. The 17-year-old boy’s lungs were so severely damaged by vaping he suffered complete lung failure. According to doctors, the young athlete would have faced ‘certain death’ without the operation.

Although vaping hasn’t been around as long as smoking, there’s growing evidence that vaping is also harmful for your lungs.

Up the exercise

Aerobic exercise is the best workout you can give your heart and your lungs. Aerobic exercise is anything that makes your heart pump faster and your lungs work harder. If you’re breathing so hard you can’t hold a conversation, you’re in the right zone for aerobic exercise.

As your fitness improves, your body will become more efficient at getting oxygen into your bloodstream. There are specific breathing exercises that can strengthen your diaphragm and help your lungs expel any build-up of stale air.

But, exercise with caution outdoors if there’s a risk of air pollution. Also be sure to consult your doctor or healthcare professional if you’re making a change to your fitness regime.

Avoid exposure to pollution

Traffic, bush fires, dust storms, asbestos, diesel fumes, second-hand smoke and indoor pollution can all place a burden on the health of your lungs.

  • Avoid jogging or walking beside roads with heavy traffic.
  • Check outdoor pollution levels and avoid peak periods.
  • Wear a protective mask if you’re exposed to pollutants at work.
  • Minimise harsh chemical use at home and dust and vacuum regularly.
  • Ensure adequate ventilation at home by regularly opening windows.
  • Avoid inhaling smoke from open fires or bush fires.
  • Avoid burning scented candles at home.

Prevent infection

Serious lung infections can start with something as simple as a cold. If a virus or germs make their way into the bronchial tubes that carry air to your lungs, you may be at risk of contracting bronchitis. Pneumonia is a more serious infection that suggests germs may have made their way into your lungs.

Avoid infections by regularly washing your hands with soap and water or a disinfectant hand cleaner.

Follow a healthy diet

It’s not just your heart that needs a healthy diet. Your lungs do too. A balanced diet, rich in fresh fruit and veg, grains, dairy and lean meat or other sources of protein, will help give you the energy your lungs need to function at their best.

There is some evidence to suggest that a diet rich in fruit and vegetables may help protect against some cancers, including lung cancer.

Types of lung disease

Chronic respiratory diseases (those affecting the airway leading to the lungs, such as asthma) affect an estimated 5.8 million Australians. Chronic respiratory diseases are largely preventable, although lung disease is often incurable.

The most common lung problems include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Asthma
  • Bronchitis
  • Lung cancer
  • Pneumonia
  • Pneumothorax (collapsed lung)

For more information on lung disease visit the Australian Lung Foundation

What are the warning signs?

Some people put the early warning signs of lung disease down to a persistent cold or cough. It’s easy to subtly adjust your lifestyle to accommodate or alleviate symptoms but getting checked could help prevent lung disease from becoming more serious, or even life threatening.

See your health professional if you experience any of the following:

  • Chest pain or fatigue
  • Persistent breathlessness
  • Wheeziness or a feeling of tightness in your chest
  • A persistent new or changed cough
  • Mucus, blood or phlegm when coughing
  • Frequent chest infections
  • Weight loss

Who is at risk?

  • Smokers or ex-smokers
  • People exposed to dust, gas, fumes or chemicals
  • People with a family history of lung disease

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is the term given to a group of progressive lung diseases that cause permanent obstruction of your airways, including emphysema and chronic bronchitis. About one in twenty Australians over the age of 45 has COPD.

Chronic – long term

Obstructive – airways narrow making it harder to breathe

Pulmonary – affecting your lungs

Disease – a recognised medical condition

There is no cure for COPD. Early diagnosis and intervention can help slow the progression of the disease, reduce the risk of an early death and improve quality of life by keeping people out of hospital.

Symptoms

  • Coughing that won’t go away, often with sputum
  • Getting short of breath doing ordinary things
  • Wheezing in cold weather

Causes

Smoking is the major cause of COPD. Other causes can include:

  • Air pollution
  • Fumes
  • Exposure to chemicals
  • Genetics
  • Childhood respiratory infections
  • Chronic asthma

Diagnosis of COPD

A simple spirometry test can measure the amount of air you expel when blowing hard into a machine. This test gives health professionals an accurate diagnosis of COPD. Most healthy people can empty at least 70 percent of air from their lungs in the first second or two.

Health implications of COPD

COPD can adversely impact many aspects of daily life. People diagnosed with COPD are more likely to report disturbed sleep, problems with exercising, pain and psychological distress. They are more likely to rate their own health as poor, compared to people without COPD.

Treatment of COPD

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a progressive disease that can’t be cured. Treatment can help alleviate symptoms and slow progression of the disease.

If you smoke, get help to quit. Eighty percent of COPD cases are caused by smoking.

Other treatments for COPD include:

  • Annual flu jabs. Flu and flu like viruses (COVID-19 and SARS) can lead to serious complications such as pneumonia, which can exacerbate symptoms of COPD
  • Get vaccinated against pneumococcal infection.
  • Follow a targeted exercise regime, to include breathing exercises
  • Medication
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Non-invasive ventilation

Asthma

Here in Australia we have among the highest rates of asthma in the world. Up to 16 percent of children and 11 percent of adult Australians suffer from asthma.

People with asthma react to triggers that make it hard for them to breath. The symptoms include breathlessness, wheezing, a tight chest and a persistent cough.

Severe symptoms of asthma can be dangerous and require immediate medical attention.

What is asthma?

Asthma is a common disease of the airways, characterised by inflammation and narrowing of the airways, making it difficult to breathe. This video tells you more.

What causes asthma?

There is no single cause of asthma. Some children develop asthma in association with allergies, other people develop asthma as adults without any known cause. Some adults develop what’s known as occupational asthma, which is linked to triggers like chemical fumes in a workshop or professional activities like baking.

Treatment

The most common form of medical treatment is an inhaler or puffer, which delivers a measured dose of medication, aimed at either preventing or relieving symptoms.

Preventer medication usually contains steroids to help stop symptoms occurring. Reliever medication offers immediate relief of symptoms such as wheezing or breathlessness.

Helpful suggestions to complement your medical treatment.

  • Avoid any known triggers such as animal dander or dust
  • Make sure your doctor has considered work-related causes
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Keep fit and active
  • If you smoke, get help to quit
  • Keep up to date with vaccinations

Occupational asthma

We spend a third of our lives at work and it’s estimated that 10-15 percent of adult asthma cases are work-related. Did you know you can get asthma from working in a bakery? Or a car paint shop?

Asthma in bakers and people who work in bakeries is frequently misdiagnosed, yet it’s one of the most common occupational respiratory diseases in Western countries.

If you suspect you might have asthma, it’s important to see a health professional because the sooner you get correctly diagnosed, the sooner you can start treatment.

CBHS members on Prestige (Gold) cover can get a free second opinion on any medical diagnosis from Best Doctors.

What’s the difference between COPD and asthma?

COPD and asthma have similar symptoms of coughing, wheezing and shortness of breath, so it’s easy to confuse the two.

COPD is characterised by permanent narrowing of the airways. COPD is a progressive condition that largely affects middle aged and older people. The goal of treatment is to slow progression and prevent conditions getting worse.

Asthma is a long-term condition that can affect people of any age. Asthma is characterised by narrowing of the airways that can be fully relieved with appropriate treatment. The goal of asthma treatment is to relieve symptoms.

Symptoms of COPD can be made worse by respiratory tract infections such as pneumonia and flu. Symptoms of asthma can be aggravated by exercise and exposure to cold air and allergens.

It’s possible to have asthma and COPD simultaneously. If you have asthma in childhood, you are more likely to develop COPD later in life.

How healthy are your lungs?

Take this interactive test to find out. You can also take an 'out of breath test'.

And here’s a simple test you can do at home. Try running up two flights of stairs, as briskly as you can. If you can run up two flights of stairs without having to stop and rest, your lungs are probably in pretty good shape. However, if you feel you need to stop, or if you feel very short of breath, your lungs may be suffering some level of distress. See your medical practitioner at the earliest opportunity.

There’s now a smartphone app for clinicians that’s been approved for use in Australia. The app can diagnose acute paediatric respiratory disease by listening to the sounds of a patient’s cough.

All information contained in this article is intended for general information purposes only. The information provided should not be relied upon as medical advice and does not supersede or replace a consultation with a suitably qualified health care professional.

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