Knowing when to seek help for breathlessness can vary from person to person, as everyone experiences the sensation differently. While there are innumerable causes of the condition, it is something that can be appropriately managed when symptoms are picked up early.
Respiratory physician Dr Nicholas Wilsmore said Australia has one of the highest incidences of asthma in the world.
Asthma is one of the main reasons people might experience breathlessness, in addition to a heart or a lung condition such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), an umbrella term for progressive lung damage.
“Education is important in improving the compliance of asthma preventer medication,” said Dr Wilsmore.
“We see a lot of non-adherence in asthmatics with their preventer medication, and they tend to over-utilise their reliever medication such as Ventolin. We know that is associated with poorer outcomes,” he said.
This, along with ongoing media awareness of asthma symptoms and pollen counts, is a valuable tool in getting people to discuss early symptoms with their GP.
Use it or lose it
A person’s level of fitness and activity plays a major role in monitoring lung health.
“We see a lot of people with smoking-related lung damage who over the years have been unconsciously avoiding or reducing activity. It means they present quite late [in their prognosis].”
“Some people will say they’re not experiencing breathlessness – but they’re not doing anything that will leave them short of breath.
“However someone who is used to competing in Ironman competitions but complaining of discomfort during a 5km run is obviously showing concerning symptoms,” said Dr Wilsmore.
High incidences of the disease silicosis have been found among those working with engineered stone bench tops. Dr Wilsmore said silicosis is caused by breathing in respirable, highly toxic, silica particles, which the body is unable to get rid of once they enter the lung.
“We are seeing a big spike in this condition which we thought was relegated to the history books,” he said.
“We hope there is a change in regulation and business practices on the way but consumers should also be aware that in order to have these bench tops in their bathroom or kitchen, someone has to cut the material.
“We can hope that this will lead to some changes and what the consumers choose to put in their houses.”
Investigating your concerns
The starting point for anyone concerned with their breathlessness is their GP. From there, a series of tests such as breathing checks, x-rays and CT scans can be undertaken to determine the course of action.
Diagnosis involves a breathing function test (spirometry) which tests how well the air is travelling in and out of the patient’s lungs along with medical imaging.
Once diagnosed, the priority is smoking cessation. Inhaled medication is often prescribed and pulmonary rehabilitation commenced using fitness to improve the patient’s breathing.
For more severe COPD interventional procedures can be performed, such as the insertion of one-way valves or lung transplants.
Early diagnosis is key
Dr Wilsmore said the population is getting increasingly sedentary, which is not good for general health and obesity, but it is a key factor in managing lung health.
“Keeping fit and healthy is extremely important for picking up any problem that’s going to cause breathlessness because you notice you aren’t able to do as much. The earlier you pick these things up, the better,” said Dr Wilsmore.
For more information visit HealthShare, a joint venture with Fairfax to improve the health of regional Australians. Or you can find a specialist near you using the health tool below.