All of us will experience some form of respiratory disease from time to time. Some conditions, like a sore throat, the common cold, or childhood asthma can be well managed by your general practitioner, and should resolve with time and proper care. However, many Australians live with more significant respiratory illness which may require the involvement of specialist medical services.
Asthma is an immune disorder that affects your small airways. They can become inflamed, causing narrowing, swelling, and increased mucus production, potentially leading to blockage.
There is a broad spectrum of severity of the condition. Childhood asthma is quite common and usually mild, only requiring the occasional use of a reliever puffer, and resolving in adulthood. However, for some it can be much more serious, requiring ongoing medication, impacting daily living, and potentially causing life-threatening asthma attacks.
Sufferers can experience shortness of breath, chest tightness, chest pain, wheezing when exhaling, a cough that is worsened by a respiratory infection. Signs of asthma becoming more serious including symptoms that are more frequent or severe, increased difficulty breathing, or the need to use your reliever puffer more often.
Asthma can be diagnosed clinically (by your signs and symptoms), but may also involve a form of testing. Your GP may have you do a peak flow measurement, when you breathe out quickly into a plastic syringe. If you require more thorough testing, you may need to undergo spirometry, a type of lung function testing where you repeatedly breathe out all of the air in your lungs, before and after using a reliever puffer.
Treatment will depend on the severity of your symptoms. It often involves having a reliever puffer with you in case you feel short of breath. You may also need to take a preventer puffer every day to reduce the frequency of asthma attacks. Severe sufferers may need medication through a special device called a nebuliser.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. It is caused by long term exposure to airborne irritants, most commonly cigarette smoke.
COPD describes three different disease processes that occur in the lungs. The first is emphysema, where there is destruction of the alveoli – the small sacs at the end of your small airways where oxygen enters and carbon dioxide leaves the blood. The second is chronic bronchitis, an inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which carry air to the alveoli. The third is a type of chronic asthma, distinct in that it is not fully reversible with normal asthma medications.
Achieving clear airways is a critical component of treatment for people with chronic respiratory diseases. Positive Expiratory Pressure (PEP) therapy can be used to help those with excessive lung secretions (mucous) or with difficulty clearing secretions, including patients suffering from COPD, asthma, cystic fibrosis and lung infections.