Lung Disease

General Medical

Dr. Sam Hay

Imagine having to think about every breath you take. Every single one. Each breath taking every effort you have. That's what it can be like living day to day with a chronic lung disease. 

Our lungs are vital organs for getting oxygen into our blood stream. If you're not getting enough oxygen, then every part of us suffers, making life an absolute drag.

Some lung issues are temporary, your friendly doctor can help fix them with a bit of TLC or a course of antibiotics. But there are more serious lung problems that if left untreated can really effect our quality of life, and even cause death.

Lung disease is a massive problem in Australia, causing about one in seven deaths. Asthma is the major cause of disability and trouble, lower respiratory tract infections (think pneumonia) the leading cause of hospital visits, and lung cancer the major cause of death.

Lung disease tends to creep up on people, as symptoms are often subtle.  People tend to easily adjust our life around them, rather than seeking help early.

Here are a few things you need to be on the look out for with your lungs.

Monitor Your Breathing

Probably the first signs that something isn't right is if taking a breath is hard, unnatural, or difficult. Poor fitness can certainly make us huff and puff, but when breathing seems out of proportion to effort, then it definitely needs to be checked out.

Of course a common cold can lead to breathing problems, but it should all clear up in about a week. So if you experience any difficulty breathing beyond a week or so, then a full check up with your doctor is needed. Be aware of coughing and what you are coughing up 

Dry persistent cough especially at night? Few people realise that cough is a common symptom of asthma, especially a dry niggly cough that flares at night time.  It’s a sure fire way of confirming asthmatics are not looking after themselves, or could be the first signs of a new diagnosis.

Got a cold? Then a cough is a common symptom caused by inflammation and mucous production in the bigger airways, or it can be triggered by snot running down the back of your throat. Either way, as the infection clears, so will your cough over a week or so.

But, there’s a but!

“We call this one a post-infective cough, in fact, I have a colleague who has coined it the 90-day-cough!  Basically the body clears the infection, but the inflammation and mucous hangs around for several weeks causing a persistent annoying cough. The best treatment is waiting it out, hot steamy showers, and throat tablets such as Fisherman’s friends.”

Does the colour of your phlegm mean anything? We used to place a lot of emphasis on the quality and colour of phlegm – once it turns green it’s ‘bacterial’ your grandmother would say.

We now know this is not necessarily the case. We put the colour into perspective with the whole picture – certainly clear/white phlegm is less worrisome, and when yellow or green it’s more likely to be viral or bacterial infection – but it’s not a given.

What about blood? “It’s never a good sign if there’s blood in the phlegm” 

“If you see blood, you must see a doctor immediately. Whilst it could be draining from your nose, it’s important for a doctor to check you out for more sinister causes such as pneumonia or lung cancer.”

Chest Pains

Most chest pains coming from the lungs will change with breathing – eg take a deep breath in and it gets worse. This differs from heart pains which tend to be more constant and heavy, don’t change with breathing, and can radiate to the arm or neck. 

“These heart pains need urgent review, call an ambulance if they hang around for more than five or ten minutes”.

Can chest pain ever be normal? We certainly get some chest discomfort with a cold, but this should never be severe, and it should certainly calm down in a week or so.

So what’s abnormal? Persistent pain, especially when accompanied by the presence of blood or mucus is a warning sign that your lungs are definitely not okay. 

“What we sometimes see with people who have been coughing lots with their cold is some irritation to one of the rib joints in the chest, called costochondritis. This can be bloody painful! It usually causes a very localised pain over one of the ribs where they attach to the sternum, it’s tender to touch, flares each cough, and leaves a dull ache.  Whilst annoying it should settle easily with some ice, pain relief tablets, and time.”

Assess Your Habits and Family History

Smoking is bad for your lungs. Really bad. And it's commonly known that if you smoke too much you can end up with 'emphysema' or lung cancer.

Emphysema is actually a type of chronic lung disease that falls under the banner of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, or 'COPD' for short.

COPD is incredibly complex, incorporating several subtype conditions, with commonly heard names such as chronic bronchitis, chronic obstructive asthma, and of course emphysema.

What happens to the lungs in COPD? In people who develop COPD, irritating gases and particles are inhaled, inflaming and injuring the lungs. Over time, the inflammation becomes chronic, damages the lung tissue, and it’s this damage that makes it so much harder to breathe in and out.

What are the risk factors? As we said, smoking is bad, especially when smoked with marijuana.

But exposure to many environmental toxins also have a damaging effect on the lungs such as particle dust in wood workshops, gases and fumes in factories, and indoor smoke from wood fires used for cooking and heating.

It's bad luck for ladies, because you're more at risk than the blokes. And those with common allergies (eg hay fever) are also more at risk.

Can my family pass these diseases on to me even if I’m not a smoker? Yes, COPD can run in families.

The Bottom Line

It’s difficult to cover off all the different types of lung conditions in just one article. I haven’t even touched on asbestosis, cystic fibrosis or lung cancer. If you have any concerns and have any symptoms that just won’t go away, then see your doctor. They will check the amount of oxygen you are breathing in, and if they are still worried, might send you for x-rays or CT scans, or a referral to a specialist.

BMedSci, MBBS(Hons), FRACGP, GDipSpMed, DCH
Director Your Doctors®


Please note: Dr. Sam's blog is general advice only. For further information on this topic please consult your healthcare professional.

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