About lung health
Most of the time, your lungs work without you being aware of it. Your diaphragm does around 80 percent of the work (that’s the dome-shaped muscle just below your lungs and heart) helping your lungs inhale and exhale up to 9,000 litres of air every day. That’s over six litres a minute. Race around a track or take part in competitive sports, and these incredible organs can process over 100 litres of air a minute.
We think of lungs as crucial for breathing, but what about talking, singing, shouting, and laughing? They would all be compromised without healthy lungs.
And look how beautiful they are.
One in three Australians has a lung disease.
People often equate lung disease with smoking, but it’s important to stress that you don’t have to be a smoker to contract lung disease.
We’ll go into more detail about lung disease later, for now let’s look at what you can do to keep your lungs healthy.
If you smoke, quit now
A single puff of tobacco smoke contains more than 7,000 chemical compounds.
“Tobacco is the only legal drug which if taken exactly as intended will kill about half of those people who use it.”
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.
This useful quit smoking advice can help you start your smoke-free journey.
“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.
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.
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, such as volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, and cancer-causing chemicals 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 for as long as smoking, there’s growing evidence that vaping can also harm 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.
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)
- Lung cancer
- 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.
- Coughing that won’t go away, often with sputum
- Getting short of breath doing ordinary things
- Wheezing in cold weather
Smoking is the major cause of COPD. Other causes can include:
- Air pollution
- Exposure to chemicals
- 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
- Oxygen therapy
- Non-invasive ventilation
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.
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
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.
Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer-related death in Australia, killing more Australians than bowel and breast cancer combined.
Lung cancer can spread (metastasise) to other parts of the body before it is detected.
“About one fifth of people who develop lung cancer have never been smokers.”
Lung cancer symptoms
You may not have any symptoms in the early stages of lung cancer. The disease is often diagnosed late because abnormal cells can start to grow and multiply with only a gradual development of mild symptoms. It’s easy to mistake these symptoms for a lack of general fitness or signs of ageing.
Signs of lung cancer
When symptoms do develop, they may include:
- shortness of breath
- chronic chest pain
- increased build-up of mucus
- sounding hoarse or changes to your voice
- coughing or spitting blood
- a new cough that won’t go away
- long-lasting chest infections that keep coming back
- loss of appetite
- unexplained weight loss
- feeling tired
- enlarged fingertips*
*If you have heart or lung problems, the tips of your fingers (and sometimes toes) may enlarge. This is known as ‘clubbing’.
If you experience any of the symptoms listed above, see your doctor for further investigation.
Lung cancer stages
There’s an internationally agreed ‘staging’ system for lung cancer, which helps doctors determine how quickly or slowly the cancer might grow. It also helps doctors determine the best treatment options. Lung cancer is complex and changeable, so ask your doctor if you need to know more about how these stages might apply to you.
Cancer cells have not spread beyond the lung.
Cancer cells have spread to the lining of the lung or to nearby lymph nodes.
Cancer cells have spread to other nearby tissue, to distant lymph nodes or to areas just outside the lung. Stage 3 can be divided further into 3A, 3B and 3C.
Cancer cells may have spread to both lungs, to areas outside the lungs or to other organs. Stage 4 can also be divided into 4A and 4B.
Treatment for lung cancer
The treatment options for lung cancer will depend on the type and stage of cancer, how well your lungs are working, and your overall health. Treatment can help you live longer and improve your quality of life.
The options include surgery, radiotherapy, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, and targeted therapy.
You can find out more about treatment options, and resources to help you live well with lung cancer, at Lung Foundation Australia.
Living with Stage 4 lung cancer
A diagnosis of Stage 4 lung cancer may be alarming, but cancer has no set course. Newer treatment options can help people live longer with Stage 4 cancer, and survival rates can be influenced by age, general health, gender, and the type and location of the cancer.
You can find more personal stories at Lung Foundation Australia.
How healthy are your lungs?
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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