“Shortness of Breath” is a very distressing symptom. Over the years I have cared for many patients who suffer from SOB and thankfully, nearly all of them can be effectively relieved - if not cured - of their distress. But there are some people with severe Obstructive Airways Disease for whom little can be done. These people rely on 24 hours oxygen supplementation via portable delivery devices, because even simple things, like the daily routine of brushing their teeth, can leave them fighting for breath.
I was reminded of how important our lungs are to us by several news reports in the first few days of 2014. Firstly, there was the final of the Hopman Cup here in Perth, when the French achieved a memorable victory after some hugely exciting tennis. Alize Cornet of France, in her singles game appeared to be really struggling at one point, and after the match is reported to have said that she was suffering from an asthma attack. She is not alone amongst elite sports people who suffer from asthma. However, in the vast majority of cases exercise induced asthmatic attacks can be easily managed or prevented - but unfortunately for Madam Cornet, this was not the case!
The second report, probably more pertinent to Baby Boomers, was that Phil Everly - of the Everly Brothers, a singing duo who were just as famous as Justin Beiber back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s - died from the complications of Obstructive Airways Disease at the age of 74.
Then finally, there were the bush fires in Denmark which had sent a pall of smoke northwards to blanket Perth, and for which health authorities had issued a warning to those people with lung disease to take appropriate precautions to avoid smoke exposure.
Our lungs are vital to our existence as they allow us to take in the oxygen that all our cells need to function properly, and to exhale carbon dioxide which is an unwanted by-product of our metabolism. This oxygen in/carbon dioxide out process happens in the minuscule air sacs within the lungs called alveoli - and luckily there are millions of them within our lungs. In fact, there are about 500 million alveoli in our adult lungs - although the number will vary depending on the person’s size - and their combined surface area is about the same as that of a Hopman Cup Tennis Court! Entry into the alveoli is via tiny tubes that lead up to the outside world via the wind pipe - or trachea - and these tiny tubes are called bronchioles.
is caused when the muscles which control the bronchioles become hyper-reactive causing them to reduce the air flow in them. The lining of those tubes also become inflamed causing the resting lumen of those tubes to be narrower in the first place. And asthma also causes the lining membrane of those bronchioles to produce thicker, stickier mucous that is more difficult to clear, and which can lead to plugging of the affected tubes.
All of these processes can be controlled with current medications.
In Obstructive Airways Disease
a similar process of inflammation of the Bronchioles occurs. But Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary (airways) Disease - or COPD - is often associated with infection, scarring and loss of elasticity of the tiny alveoli. This loss of elasticity will often lead to air trapping within the lungs, or even collapse of the alveoli and permanent loss of function. And the result of all this is irreversible SOB.
All of us should take great care of our lungs - just ask anyone with COPD. But if you do suffer from Asthma or COPD, then here are a few useful tips:
- Try to avoid infections - stay away from people who have colds, flu, sinus infections or a sore throat. And ask them (politely) to stay away from you too. You should also have a flu jab every year and make sure you are vaccinated against pneumonia.
- If you know of places where there are regular traffic jams, or where there are lots of exhaust fumes (e.g. underground car parks), avoid them as best you can.
- If you work in a dusty or smoky environment, then you might need to change departments - talk with your employer and explain the problem.
- Only use strong-smelling products (like cleaning products) when there's lots of ventilation.
- Don't go to smoky places, and ask people not to smoke around you.
- Don't use air freshener plug-ins or sprays, or scented candles.
- Try to keep the air in your house at a constant temperature.
- If you're going outside on a cold or windy day, cover your nose and mouth with a scarf.
- Don't use hair spray, and avoid perfume.