The latest GP figures reveal more than 1 million people are currently diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases in the UK and it is believed there are more than 3 million people living with the condition who haven’t yet been diagnosed.
COPD is the umbrella term for a host of serious long-term lung conditions that include chronic bronchitis, emphysema and chronic obstructive airways disease. The condition does not typically become noticeable until after the age of 35 and the majority of people diagnosed with COPD are men aged over 50.
People with COPD have difficulty breathing as their airways become gradually more inflamed and narrow. Typical symptoms include breathlessness, a persistent cough with phlegm, fatigue, wheezing, weight loss and frequent chest infections, particularly in winter.
Although air pollution, genetic disorders and previous exposure to fumes, chemicals and dusts in the workplace, have all contributed to causing many currently occurring cases, smoking is easily the main preventable risk factor associated with COPD.
The chances of developing COPD increase with the more someone smokes and the longer they have been smoking. Smoking irritates and inflames the lungs and leads to permanent changes. These include a thickening of the walls of the airways and an increase in mucous production. Damage caused by smoking causes the lungs to lose their normal elasticity which in turn, causes scarring and a narrowing of the airways.
COPD – More Than a Smoker’s Cough
Smokers often dismiss early signs of COPD as nothing more than a ‘smoker’s cough.’ But if symptoms are ignored and the disease is allowed to progress, advanced COPD can have a major impact on a person’s breathing and quality of life.
People need to understand the debilitating extent of just how much the condition can disrupt everyday life. Many people with COPD struggle to even climb stairs or get on with normal housework or gardening.
Notwithstanding the impact on one’s quality on life, around 25,000 people die every year from COPD in England alone - twice the European average. Almost 90 per cent of COPD-related deaths are caused by smoking.
Middle-aged smokers and ex-smokers who suffer from breathlessness after even light exercise, or have a persistent chesty cough particularly in the mornings, or persistent coughs and colds in the winter, are advised to consult their GP and request a simple breathing test.
It is important that COPD is diagnosed as early as possible so effective treatment can be used to slow any deterioration in the lungs. Although there is currently no cure for COPD, the sooner the condition is diagnosed and treatment begins, the less the chances of severe lung damage.
Figures from the Health & Social Care Information Centre (HSCIC) show that there are 4,500 hospital admissions every day for smoking-related diseases.
COPD led to more than 113,000 emergency hospital admissions in England in 2013 and 2014, and evidence shows that patients diagnosed in A&E departments with common cancers such as lung cancer tend to have more advanced tumours which may be significantly more difficult to treat.
An estimated one in four of the 330,000 patients who develop cancer each year in the UK are unaware they have the disease until their symptoms become so serious that they need to attend A&E. Sadly, by this stage, it is often too late as tumours may well have spread to such an extent that nothing can be done to save the patient.
It is, therefore, vital that so-called ‘smoker’s coughs’ or any noticeable rise in breathlessness is not ignored. Lifestyle changes, pulmonary rehabilitation, and prescription medicines can all help if COPD is diagnosed early but clearly, the most effective step smokers can take is to quit before any kind of warning symptoms occur.
Rabia Ibrahim is a medical negligence solicitor at Slater and Gordon in London.
Our clinical negligence solicitors can advise on whether you may have a claim for delayed diagnosis of cancer. Our clinical negligence solicitors deal with a huge number of delayed or misdiagnosed cancer cases due to errors such as doctors failing to consider cancer as a possible diagnosis and make early referrals as a result.
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