World COPD Day – Don’t ignore the symptoms

Reflecting on World COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) Day last week, the Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation talks about respiratory health and looking after the nation’s lungs.

Last week World COPD Day took place. It was great to see so much conversation taking place across various channels about the importance of looking after your lung health and where to go for support or more information.

Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is the name given to a group of lung diseases including bronchitis and emphysema. They make it difficult for people to empty air out of their lungs because the airways have been narrowed. COPD affects millions of people across the country, yet unfortunately many people are only diagnosed in the later stages of the disease – or they aren’t diagnosed at all.

One reason for this is that a main symptom for COPD is breathlessness, often people think that gradually becoming breathless is a normal part of aging. Breathlessness affects 10% of the population, and 30% of older people. Occasionally getting out of breath is healthy and normal, but persistent breathlessness doing everyday tasks, such as walking up the stairs or hoovering the house, is a sign that something might not be quite right.

At the British Lung Foundation (BLF), we devised a short breath test based on the Medical Research Council breathlessness scale that helps people to see if they need to see a doctor by answering a few simple questions. So far, we’ve helped thousands of people realise that a doctor’s appointment was the right way to go.

Lung disease is the UK’s third biggest killer behind cancer and heart disease, yet it’s lagging behind when it comes to public awareness. Identifying respiratory conditions like COPD in the earliest stages offers the best chance for people to start treatment and potentially add years to their lives.

For people living with diagnosed COPD, World COPD Day is an opportunity to look at ways to manage your lung condition. One of the best treatments is often unexpected – it’s exercise! Pulmonary Rehabilitation (PR) is a specialist exercise program for people living with a lung condition. A PR team will be made up of trained health care professionals such as physiotherapists, nurses and occupational therapists, and they’ll run through safe and beneficial exercises help you get your strength back as well as information on looking after your body and your lungs, and advice on managing your condition. Sadly though, PR isn’t available to everybody as programmes vary across the UK. If you would like to find out more about the programme and whether you’re able to take part you can talk to your GP, nurse or respiratory team. As them whether it’s right for you and what’s available in your area.

One thing everybody who has COPD should be aware of is that you’re more vulnerable to illness, especially during colder months. This winter, we urge anybody who has a lung condition, and the people who care for them to get the flu jab to save lives and ease winter pressure on the NHS.

If you do get a cold or flu, make sure you get advice from your pharmacist, doctor or nurse before it gets more serious.

The BLF is a member of the Taskforce for Lung Health; a group of 29 organisations and individuals including healthcare professionals, charities and patients with an interest in respiratory care. Together we’re giving people with lung disease a voice and working with NHS England to transform all aspects of lung health, including improving diagnosis times for COPD and access to PR. The taskforce was established to develop a 5-year plan for improving lung health in England and to raise public awareness and understanding of lung health. The plan will be published soon – so by World COPD Day 2023, we hope to see a different picture of lung disease in England.

Dr Penny Woods

Dr Penny Woods is Chief Executive of the British Lung Foundation.

Penny, a qualified as a doctor with an MA from Cambridge University and MBA from INSEAD, has many years’ experience in the healthcare sector working as a management consultant for clients including governments, multi-national companies, NHS organisations and private healthcare providers.

She spent seven years in a number of senior roles at BTG plc and, before joining the BLF, she was chief executive of the Picker Institute Europe.

Penny is passionate about working on behalf of patients, from personal and family experience of COPD, asthma, obstructive sleep apnoea and motor neurone disease.

You can follow Penny on Twitter: @blfpenny.