The respiratory system is the parts of the body involved in breathing – the taking in of oxygen and the expulsion of carbon dioxide from the body via the lungs, nose and mouth.
The respiratory system has several ways of protecting itself from the risks that come with constant exposure to the air, microbes and pollutants. However, these don’t always work, meaning that infections of the respiratory tract are common. They include the common cold, tonsillitis, laryngitis and flu.
While sometimes serious, these infections are generally treatable at home with painkillers and plenty of rest, without the need to see your GP.
Other more serious disorders of the respiratory system are usually treated by a respiratory or lung specialist. These conditions include:
Patients typically use reliever and preventer inhalers to manage their asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), in devices like pressurised metered dose inhalers (MDIs), breath-activated inhalers (BA MDIs and dry powder inhalers), inhalers with spacer devices or nebulisers.
Over five million people in the UK are currently receiving treatment for asthma.1 Asthma is caused by inflammation of the airways – specifically, the bronchi which are the small tubes that carry air into and out of the lungs.
The causes of asthma are not fully understood, but people with a family history of asthma, eczema or allergies are more likely to develop asthma. Certain environmental factors are thought to play a role, too, like environmental pollution.
Inflammation of the lungs leads to a narrowing of the airways, a tightening of the muscles around them, and an increased production of sticky mucus, or phlegm. Symptoms of asthma include:
An asthma attack is usually triggered by an irritant – such as animal fur, pollen, exercise or cold air. These will vary from person to person, and an individual may have more than one trigger.
There is no cure for asthma and, rarely, people will need hospitalising if they have a particularly severe attack. Current treatments focus on either relieving the symptoms, or preventing future symptoms and attacks from occurring.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an umbrella term for a collection of lung conditions – including bronchitis and emphysema – characterised by difficulty in breathing because of a narrowing of the airways, which restricts the flow of air to the lungs.
It is usually caused by smoking, and symptoms include:
COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases in the UK – with over three million people living with the condition. However, only about 900,000 have formally been diagnosed,2 because people are reluctant to seek medical help, and often ignore their symptoms.
Cystic Fibrosis is a genetic condition affecting more than 10,400 people in the UK.3 You are born with Cystic Fibrosis and cannot catch it later in life, but one in 25 of us carries the faulty gene that causes it, usually without knowing.
The gene affected by Cystic Fibrosis controls the movement of salt and water in and out of cells. People with Cystic Fibrosis experience a build-up of thick sticky mucus in the lungs, digestive system and other organs, causing a wide range of challenging symptoms affecting the entire body.
The build-up of mucus in the lungs causes chronic infections, meaning that people with Cystic Fibrosis struggle with reduced lung function and have to spend hours doing physiotherapy and taking nebulised treatments each day.
While people with Cystic Fibrosis often look healthy on the outside, each individual is battling their own range of symptoms on a daily basis.
1 http://www.asthma.org.uk/asthma-facts-and-statistics accessed 10.04.18
2 https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg101/chapter/Introduction accessed 10.04.2018
3. https://www.cysticfibrosis.org.uk/what-is-cystic-fibrosis accessed 10.04.2018