Ever run out of puff halfway up the stairs? Found yourself wheezing when you really meant to laugh? Coughed up phlegm when you don’t even have a cold?
If you smoke, chances are you can answer ‘yes’ to all three. Chances are too, you know they don’t signal tip-top health.
But what you probably didn’t know is that they could be early signs of lung disease, which can kill more than 20 times as many people as asthma.
What is lung disease?
Lung disease covers a group of conditions (including chronic bronchitis and emphysema) that damage the lungs, blocking the passage of air in and out, and making it difficult to breathe.
It decreases the lungs’ ability to take in oxygen and remove carbon dioxide when we breathe. As the disease gets worse, small airways within the walls of the lungs become less elastic. Finally, the airways collapse, and become clogged with mucus. Although air continues to reach the lungs when you breathe in, it becomes trapped, making it difficult and uncomfortable to breathe out.
FACT: Up to three million people in the UK are estimated to have lung disease at any one time.
Who gets lung disease? Are you at risk?
It’s simple. If you smoke, you’re at risk. Smoking is the major cause of lung disease, and four out of five cases are smoking related.
It used to be older men who worked down the mines that suffered from lung disease. Nowadays it’s rare for people who have never smoked to suffer from the condition.
Other causes of lung disease can include passive smoking, air pollution or childhood lung problems that were not treated properly at the time.
FACT: Female smokers are nearly 13 times as likely to die from lung disease as women who have never smoked. Male smokers are nearly 12 times as likely to die from lung disease as men who have never smoked.
Spotting the symptoms
Smokers often overlook symptoms of lung disease, thinking that ‘smokers cough’ and general breathlessness are just par for the course—the ‘natural’ side-effects of smoking, or ‘normal’ signs of getting older.
In many cases, however, they could be the earliest signs of lung disease.
Common symptoms include:
- wet’ cough, usually accompanied by a lot of phlegm
- tightness in the chest and shortness of breath (particularly in cold weather and in the mornings)
- wheezing with mild exertions, like climbing stairs
- frequent clearing of the throat
- chest infections with phlegm becoming yellow or green
- breathlessness can cause panic. Some people with lung disease describe it as ‘like drowning on land’.
FACT: LUNG DISEASE causes one-fifth of the UK’s annual smoking-related deaths
Do something now
It’s important that you don’t put off seeking help until it’s too late, just because you don’t think you’re old enough to have something as serious as lung disease
It doesn’t matter what age you are, if you’re a smoker or ex-smoker and have been experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above for a long time you could be affected. Even smokers in their early twenties with a ‘smoker’s cough’ could be experiencing the early stages of lung disease. It is a progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time.
It also means that the sooner you give up smoking and get help the more you increase your chances of reducing the effect of the disease on your life. There is no cure for lung disease, but the good news is it can be managed effectively.
Once you have symptoms, continuing to smoke and failing to get treatment leads to increased breathlessness and more chest infections. As the disease worsens, too little oxygen reaches the lungs, leaving the heart in short supply. This can cause heart failure.
FACT: Most of the 25,000 deaths from LUNG DISEASE flare-ups each year could have been prevented through early detection.
How is lung disease diagnosed?
If you have any of these symptoms, seek advice from a health professional as soon as possible and ask at your surgery for your lung function to be tested using a spirometer.
Practice nurses usually carry out the spirometry test, and all you have to do is blow into a machine which measures your breathing over a specified time. If you are only able to inhale a small amount of air during the test, and you also have any of the typical symptoms, a diagnosis of lung disease is likely to be confirmed.
As with blood pressure, smokers over the age of 40 should have a spirometery test every two or three years. Other tests to rule out other causes of lung disease-like symptoms include: chest X-ray, lung scans, phlegm and blood tests.
Reduce your risk of lung disease now!
The single most effective way to prevent lung disease or to stop it getting worse if you already have it—is not to smoke.
Any damage already done to your airways can’t be reversed, but stopping smoking usually prevents the disease progressing.
Remember, it is NEVER too late to stop smoking, and even people with advanced lung disease tend to benefit from quitting.
When you do give up, you might find that any cough gets worse for a while as your airways recover. Don’t make the mistake of starting smoking again to ease the cough.