Around 1 in 5 people in the UK have a history of lung disease. From asthma to COPD and even lung cancer, respiratory illnesses are becoming more common as our population ages. In fact, lung diseases are a common cause of severe disability among older adults. This article will look at the most common types of lung disease, explaining the symptoms and causes. For information on other common medical conditions affecting older people, see our comprehensive guide here.
Lung Disease Statistics
Currently, around 10,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with a lung disease every week. Sadly, someone dies from respiratory failure every five minutes, making it one of the leading causes of death in the UK.
More than half of these deaths are due to lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPDs) such as bronchitis.
Other common types of lung disease include:
• Tuberculosis (TB).
Next, we’ll look at the most common types of lung disease one by one.
About 47,000 people are diagnosed with lung cancer in the UK every year, most of whom are over the age of 60.
This condition develops when cells in the body reproduce abnormally quickly and form a tumour. Symptoms are quite rare in the early stages of lung cancer. However, as the tumour grows, later symptoms include:
- Chest pain.
- Persistent coughing.
- Coughing up blood.
- Weight loss.
As with most types of lung disease, smoking is an enormous risk factor for lung cancer. In fact, smoking causes 79% of lung cancer cases in the UK. If you’re still smoking cigarettes, stopping is the best decision you could possibly make for your health. See our tips for quitting smoking or read a list of reasons to quit smoking today.
Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Diseases
COPD refers to a group of lung diseases. It includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis, both of which cause breathing difficulties and other health risks.
Emphysema affects the air sacs in the lungs (called alveoli) while chronic bronchitis causes inflammation in the airways. COPD is most common among adults who smoke, particularly those who are middle-aged or older. With treatment, it is possible to manage the symptoms, although they can become more severe over time.
Here are the common symptoms of COPD:
- Feeling breathless
- A persistent cough
- Wheezing – especially in cold weather
- Producing a lot of phlegm.
Unfortunately, the NHS says there is currently no cure for COPD because the damage it does to the lungs is permanent. However, treatment – typically medications and inhalers – can help slow the progression of the condition and ease symptoms. Staying active and exercising can also make a big difference. COPD is mostly preventable. Smoking is the biggest risk factor by far, so it’s important to quit if you haven’t already.
Pneumonia is a chest infection that which causes inflammation in one or both of the lungs. It causes breathing difficulties as the air sacs in the lungs fill with fluid. The condition can be life-threatening, but most cases can be cured. Pneumonia is usually a bacterial infection that’s contagious, so you can also catch it from another person. Viruses such as coronavirus can also cause pneumonia
The common symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Coughing – sometimes a dry cough, sometimes producing mucus or phlegm.
- Breathing difficulties.
- Chest pain.
- Loss of appetite.
- Sweating and/or shivering.
Certain groups of people are more likely to get pneumonia. These groups include smokers, elderly people, and those with conditions like asthma and cystic fibrosis. The main treatment for pneumonia is antibiotics, plus rest and drinking plenty of water. More serious cases may require hospitalisation and an intravenous drip of fluids and antibiotics.
Asthma is a very common condition which affects people of all ages. It often starts in childhood, caused by inflammation of the airways to and from the lungs. For many, it’s a lifelong condition, particularly if it starts in adulthood.
Asthma symptoms can occur randomly or as a result of a trigger such as:
- A cold or flu.
Asthma symptoms can vary from person to person. Here are some of the most common symptoms of asthma
- Feeling out of breath.
- Tight chest.
Unfortunately, there is currently no cure for asthma. However, with the correct treatment plan, most people can manage their condition effectively. Most people with asthma will use a preventer inhaler and a reliever inhaler in combination. If you have asthma, it’s important to stay active and stop smoking if you are a smoker.
Bronchiectasis is the result of damage to the airways (or bronchi) which lead to the lungs. It causes a build-up of mucus which can lead to bacterial infections and can cause permanent damage.
This is one of the rarer types of lung disease, affecting around 210,000 people in the UK according to the British Lung Foundation. However, cases are on the rise. Bronchiectasis can affect people of any age, although it is most common in middle-aged and older adults.
Symptoms of bronchiectasis include:
- Coughing up phlegm.
- Feeling breathless.
Most people with bronchiectasis have a normal life expectancy. Nevertheless, bronchiectasis is a long-term condition which can cause repeated chest infections. Usually, treatment involves breathing exercises to clear the airways and antibiotics to deal with flare-ups.
Mesothelioma is a serious type of lung disease, usually the result of breathing in asbestos dust. It’s a relatively rare form of cancer which affects the lining of the lungs.
The symptoms of mesothelioma usually appear slowly over time. Often, you won’t notice symptoms for decades after being exposed to asbestos. The most common symptoms are:
- Chest pain
- A persistent cough
- Swollen fingertips or clubbed fingernails.
Sadly, most cases of mesothelioma are fatal. However, treatment can slow its progress and ease symptoms, improving quality of life.
TB is a type of lung disease which is caused by breathing in the Mycobacterium tuberculosis germ. People with weakened immune systems are most at risk of catching TB. However, a vaccine is available for babies, children, and adults under 35 who are at risk of catching TB.
The most common symptoms of tuberculosis are:
- Persistent cough – sometimes bringing up phlegm.
- Weight loss.
- Loss of appetite.
Luckily, TB is almost always curable with antibiotics. If you are diagnosed with TB, you will be contagious for 2-3 weeks, so it’s important to be careful not to infect the people around you. This usually means staying home from work or school, sleeping separately from other people, and practising good hygiene like covering your mouth when coughing or sneezing.
COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by a particular kind of coronavirus. Most people who catch it make a full recovery in a matter of weeks. However, in severe cases, particularly in older people and those with underlying conditions, it can cause long-term complications and can even be fatal.
The main symptoms of COVID-19 are:
- Persistent cough – usually a dry cough.
- Loss or change to your sense of smell and/or taste.
If you experience any of these symptoms, you and all other members of your household should stay at home. You should book a free coronavirus test on the government website here. Lots of people can treat their symptoms at home by getting lots of rest, drinking plenty of fluids, and taking painkillers to relieve discomfort. If symptoms get worse, you can get support from the NHS by calling 111.
Reassurance for People with Lung Disease
If you have any form of lung disease or respiratory illness, you might feel worried about your health and independence at home. Our Personal Alarms are designed to help older and disabled people, especially those living alone and/or with long-term illness. A personal alarm means you can always call for assistance if you need it. Our 24/7 Emergency Response Team are always on hand to reassure you and get you the help you need. To learn more, read our quick guide or give our team a call on 0800 999 0400. Alternatively, you can complete our contact us form and we will get back to you as soon as possible.
You can order a Lifeline alarm online today. We offer a range of personal alarms to suit all lifestyles, needs and budgets, including a cutting-edge GPS alarm for peace of mind wherever you go.
Editor’s Note: This article was updated on 26 November 2020 to reflect current information. It was originally published in September 2019.