Lung health is an area that many of us overlook, until it becomes a problem we can no longer ignore. For those living with chronic respiratory conditions like COPD, every breath becomes a conscious effort. In this blog, Ruth Barlow, a System Clinical Lead at NHS Mid and South Essex, outlines the symptoms to look out for, the importance of early diagnosis, and the treatment options available. Whether you or a loved one are grappling with a respiratory condition or simply wish to be more informed, this blog offers valuable insights to help you take control of your respiratory health.
Sometimes we take our lungs for granted. They keep us alive and well, and for the most part, we don’t need to think about them. However, it can be breath-taking if you’re living with a lung condition. That’s why it’s important to prioritise your lung health.
COPD is the second most common lung disease in the UK, after asthma. Around 2% of the entire population – 4.5% of all people aged over 40 – live with diagnosed COPD.
Symptoms of COPD
As COPD develops at a relatively slow pace over several years, many people with the condition only begin to notice symptoms in their late 40s or early 50s. People often think their symptoms are because they are getting older and are less fit, so they may not be diagnosed until later in life
The more typical symptoms include breathlessness, frequent chest infections, wheezing and chesty cough.
Given the nature of the condition, these symptoms will usually get worse over time which will unfortunately mean one’s ability to carry out physical activities will also weaken. A person with the condition may also find they experience chest pain, fatigue, weight loss and swollen ankles.
As the condition is respiratory related there is also the possibility of it flaring up a few times a year, particularly during the winter months.
Diagnosis of COPD
If you’re over 35 years old and have been, or continue to be, a smoker and are experiencing a persistence of any of the symptoms I mentioned earlier, making an appointment to see a healthcare professional at your GP practice or local pharmacy is a key step to take.
Diagnosis is based on a review of symptoms, alongside your family medical history, as well as test results.
However, there are a number of other respiratory conditions that share similar conditions, such as: asthma, bronchiectasis, anaemia and heart failure.
A health check will help provide clarity over the cause.
Unfortunately, the damage COPD causes to the lungs is irreversible and permanent. However, appropriate treatment can actively help to slow progression of the condition.
Stopping smoking is essential for everyone and the absolute first step for any smokers with COPD.
Medicines, especially inhalers, expand airways and breathing exercises may help reduce the affects of COPD lastly surgery, although this is uncommon may be appropriate for some people .
Living with COPD
Being diagnosed with COPD will naturally require some everyday adaptations to life but for many people with the condition, simple forward planning will reduce the level of disruption.
Some actions to take include stop smoking, take prescribed medications and exercise to improve functional fitness and quality of life.
Eating well, as with exercise, a good diet directly impacts the quality of life, both physically and mentally,
Regularly monitor the weather and always be prepared in advance for cold spells or conditions which require readily available medication.
Be aware of the environment and air quality, lung irritants will exacerbate the condition.
Wrapping a scarf loosely around your nose and mouth can help. Breathing in chilly winter air often trigger symptoms. But when you breathe through a scarf, it warms the air up, helping prevent cold air irritating airways.
Good inhaler technique, whether it’s a preventer or reliever inhaler, helps you breathe the medication straight into the lungs, where it’s needed most. If your inhaler technique is good You’re less likely to get side effects because it isn’t being absorbed into the rest of your body, giving you the best chance of managing symptoms.
Even if you think your inhaler technique is OK, there may still be room for improvement so more medication gets deep into your lungs. A spacer should be used for steroid inhalers as long as they are not dry powders, as this reduces the side effects
Check your inhaler technique with your GP, asthma nurse, or pharmacist. They might recommend a different type of inhaler if you’re finding your one difficult to use. For example, a dry powder inhaler can be much easier to use, as it doesn’t require as much hand strength as a metered-dose inhaler.
Respiratory action plan
Speak to a healthcare professional at your GP practice about a Respiratory Action Plan. The main purpose of patients having a Respiratory Action Plan is to help them gain a better understanding and control of their condition along with guiding them to recognise when symptoms change and what action should be taken. Know your self-management plan/action plan, especially if you have a flare of your respiratory condition.
It’s recommended an action plan is completed in partnership between the patient and health care professional and should involve their family members or carers (as appropriate). It uses a traffic light system – green when you’re well, amber if feeling worse and red if symptoms are much worse. This sounds like the asthma plan, the COPD should have what to do in an exacerbation
The Respiratory Action Plan is for you to refer to in a time of need and provides paramedics and GPs with a baseline of how you are and indications you may be developing a flare of your COPD or chest infection.
Ask your GP practice about Pulmonary Rehab
Pulmonary Rehab is a treatment programme of physical exercise and advice about looking after your body and lungs, as well as managing your condition and symptoms. The exercises are individualised so you will not be asked to do more than you are able and you will have lots of rests so you can get your breath back.
Your Pulmonary Rehabteam will be made up of trained health care professionals such as physiotherapists, nurses and occupational therapists.
Pulmonary Rehab courses usually last six weeks of two-hour sessions per week. You’ll be in a group of around eight to 16 people, held in local hospitals, community halls, leisure centres and health centres.
Pulmonary rehab is an effective treatment and reduces breathlessness, improves quality of life and walking ability. It has more impact on breathlessness than inhalers, so all people with COPD should attend if they are able. You will not be eligible if you have an unstable heart condition. You will meet other people with COPD and be able to discuss with them what helps their symptoms
Oh, and did I mention to stop smoking?