How to recognise the signs of lung disease

Are you short of breath?  Picture: PA
Are you short of breath? Picture: PA
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Getting out of breath isn’t always a sign that something is wrong. In fact, it can be perfectly normal – after strenuous exercise, for instance.

But there are occasions when breathlessness is a symptom of ill health, like lung disease.

Breathe Easy Week last week celebrated the 30th anniversary of the British Lung Foundation (BLF), and the charity is urging anyone suffering from this symptom – but ignoring it – to visit their GP.

What exactly is lung disease?

“It’s a collection of diseases that change the lungs, either by reducing the amount of oxygen they are able to take in, or changing the way that they function,” says Dr Steve Iley, a medical director at Bupa UK.

“Broadly speaking, there are two main types of lung disease; those that change the way that the lungs operate – such as asthma – and those which cause changes to the lung tissue itself, like lung cancer. And there’s chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which is a combination of the two types.”

These diseases affect an awful lot of people. Lung cancer kills 35,000 every year in the UK alone and there are more than nine million people suffering from COPD and asthma. Other, lesser known, lung diseases include idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), which kills around 5000 people a year, yet has no known cause or cure, and mesothelioma, the asbestos-related cancer of the lung lining, which kills half as many again, often within months of diagnosis.

What causes lung disease?

“Because the lungs’ primary purpose is to move air in and out of the body, anything in that air can potentially impact them and cause lung disease,” Dr Iley continues. “Cigarette smoke can cause lung cancer and COPD, pollution can irritate the lungs and cause lung diseases, and even bakers who are exposed to flour may get lung diseases as a result of flour getting into their lungs.

“Causes can also be genetic – for example, cystic fibrosis, which mainly affects the lungs.”

What are the symptoms?

There are lots of potential symptoms, and they vary greatly for different forms of lung disease, but may include:

• A cough that lasts more than three weeks;

• Breathlessness;

• Wheezing;

• Blood in mucus or phlegm;

• Pain or unexplained weight loss;

• A tight chest;

• Producing more mucus or phlegm than usual;

• A lump in the neck.

“Some of these symptoms, such as a cough that lasts more than three weeks, or feeling breathless through non-strenuous exercise, are things that people often ignore,” says Alistair Martin, head of policy, media and campaigns at the BLF.

“However, you should 
always get these checked out by a doctor – it may be nothing, but if there is something that might need medical attention, it’s always better to get it diagnosed sooner rather than later.”

Is there a cure?

There’s no quick fix for many lung conditions, but the earlier someone is diagnosed, the better they can be treated, and the greater your chances of maintaining a good quality of life.

“Without exception, everyone with a lung disease should stop smoking,” states Dr Iley.

“Any other exposure to environmental factors, like pollen and pollution, should also be reduced. It’s also worth people checking that they are taking their treatment correctly – for example, knowing the right way to use an inhaler.

“People can also exercise their lungs to make them fitter, be this through regular exercise or specialist respiratory physiotherapy.”

• For advice on other aspects of tackling lung disease, you can call the British Lung Foundation helpline on 03000 030 555 and visit