Healthy Living: Recognise the early signs of lung disease

David Memmott at his home in Low Edges. He suffers from both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
David Memmott at his home in Low Edges. He suffers from both asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
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Huffing and puffing up the stairs is not necessarily a sign that a person is just unfit - it could be a symptom of a serious health problem.

A wide range of conditions can lie behind the symptom of breathlessness, from asthma and anxiety to pneumonia and even cancer.

According to the British Lung Foundation charity, around one in five people nationally are affected by lung disease, with millions more at risk across the country.

The good cause is encouraging people to visit their GP if they are feeling short of breath regularly, so potential problems can be spotted as soon as possible.

David Memmott, aged 74, from Lowedges in Sheffield, suffers from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and shortness of breath was the first sign that he was unwell.

“I was finding it was taking me a lot longer to do things that I normally do, like getting dressed in the morning,” said the grandfather, who used to run a wholesale firm selling supplies for hairdressers.

“Now I’m unable to do a lot of walking. Things like steps and hills especially are difficult.”

He said his problems stem from a huge smoking habit of 40 cigarettes a day, which he gave up two decades ago.

“I don’t think about it or regret smoking, I’ve just accepted that it’s my own fault and there’s not a lot I can do about it,” said David, who lives with wife Janet, 76.

“I smoked 40 a day for 40 years. My father also had bronchial asthma all his life, and died at the age of 71, so there might be a hereditary factor there.

“I was around 14 or 15 when I started smoking. You never think anything will happen to you, and the pressures of work tend to make you want to smoke more.”

David agreed that patients feeling breathless should consult their doctor.

“If people are suffering from lung disease, there’s so much help available - it’s just knowing where to get it from,” he added.

The pensioner attends a support group called Breathe Easy, which meets at the Quaker Meeting House in Sheffield city centre on the second Thursday of every month, from 1.30pm to 3.30pm.

“You get friendship and the chance to talk to other people with the same conditions. I go to exercise classes too, it’s very important that you keep yourself fit and don’t give in to it,” David said.

The foundation says that asthma is one of the most common illnesses which causes breathlessness, affecting around 5.4 million children and adults in the UK.

Meanwhile, sufferers of COPD may also find themselves out of breath more often. The condition is an umbrella term covering illnesses like bronchitis and emphysema, and is mainly caused by smoking due to the damage it causes to the delicate lining of the lungs.

A spokeswoman for the British Lung Foundation said: “As soon as you think you’re breathless, it’s best to get a test done, especially if you’re a smoker. Getting an early diagnosis could help slow the progression of the disease.

Shortness of breath can be a telltale sign of lung cancer too, she added, along with persistent coughing.

“Go to the doctor if you notice a change in your cough,” the spokeswoman said.

“If it goes on for three weeks, you must see the doctor and get a chest X-ray. Speak to your GP if you’re experiencing any breathing difficulties and chest pains too. Early diagnosis is crucial for treating lung cancer.”

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- Around 10,000 litres of air move in and out of the human lungs every day. Each breath of air carries germs and other foreign bodies as well as oxygen. Tiny hairs line the airways and help waft unwanted materials up to the mouth.

- If the lungs are damaged, it can lead to breathlessness - damage can be caused by cigarette smoke, air pollution, gases and dusts.

- The lungs are about the size of a pair of footballs and the surface area could almost cover a tennis court. Inside, the lungs are a mass of fine tubes, including 300 million tiny air sacs called alveoli.

- The body needs a continuous supply of oxygen to burn glucose, the high-energy substance from digested food that cells receive from blood.

- On average, people breath about 15 times per minute. If you run hard, the rate soars to 80 times a minute. Newborn babies breathe about 40 times a minute.

- A human will have taken well over 600 million breaths by the age of 80.