Over nearly 18 years, ARNS has been heavily involved in campaigns to ban smoking in public places, restrict tobacco advertising and, more recently, to stop smoking in cars with children. Whilst this helps to protect future generations, Matthew and Wendy warn that the peak of the crisis is yet to come, which is why it’s so important to continue raising awareness.

The ‘smoker’s cough’ has become part of our national vocabulary, but the phlegm-induced cackle is one of the most common symptoms of a disease that greatly reduces quality of life. More than a million people in the UK have been diagnosed with COPD and there may be as many as two million others who are living with the disease unaware. COPD is an umbrella term used to describe a number of respiratory diseases including, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, that can leave a patient struggling for breath and unable to carry out everyday tasks.

Roughly 80% of COPD cases are caused by smoking, although long-term exposure to dust and pollution, along with genetics, can also play their part. Over many years, smoking irritates and inflames the lungs and that inflammation leads the walls of the airways to permanently thicken and produce more mucus. In addition, damage is done to the delicate walls of the air sacs in the lungs, reducing their normal elasticity.

If the answer to this debilitating disease were just medication, it would be easy. But whilst inhalers and nebulisers can help alleviate symptoms in the short term, treating COPD requires patients to make big lifestyle changes, which is why organisations like the Association of Respiratory Nurse Specialists (ARNS) are encouraging patients to get treatment as early as possible. “More needs to be done to catch people early,” says Matthew Hodson, Chair of ARNS. “If we can reach and diagnose more people earlier, we can get them onto the right course of treatment straightaway.”

 

Peer Support

 

“The first thing we do is to help them stop smoking, if they’ve not already quit” continues Wendy, Vice Chair of ARNS, describing the course of treatment offered to someone with COPD. “We also ensure they have a flu jab, as consistent respiratory infections can exacerbate the problem, and we also offer them pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a combination programme of health education, exercise and support.”

Wendy and Matthew both stress the importance of peer support to encourage lifestyle change, but when it comes to COPD, support groups are surprisingly different. Singing, it has been medically proven, can really help patients to control their breathing, so in hospitals across the country you’ll encounter community ‘singing for breathing’ groups made up of patients with COPD and other respiratory conditions. In addition to the physical benefits, having the support of a group who are experiencing the same challenges can be hugely valuable.

However, “many people still only seek medical help when things reach crisis point,” confirms Matthew. “For those with more advanced COPD, the trajectory is difficult to predict. There are so many different things that will impact their life expectancy.” What is known is that quality of life will rapidly diminish as a patient’s condition and symptoms worsens.

Those with advanced COPD are more likely to get respiratory infections and will certainly take longer to recover from them. Everyday tasks will become harder and over time many have to give up work. As a result, anxiety and depression are also prevalent. “People are often unsure what to expect as the disease progresses,” says Matthew. “Decisions about future care are important and it’s often easier to talk about them to healthcare professionals before someone becomes seriously ill.”