Serving Greater Vancouver & the Fraser Valley

Healthy lungs, healthy life

by Lillianne Fuller

When a person receives a diagnosis of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) it’s often assumed they are, or were, heavy smokers. But this is not always the case. According to the British Columbia Lung Association, even if a person did not smoke for many years, or smoke heavily, they could still be at risk of undetected COPD. Poor indoor/outdoor air quality, chemical fumes, and air pollution are all factors that can aggravate symptoms in a person living with lung disease.

There could be something in your home that is a problem for your lungs. Radon gas is a radioactive gas that is invisible, odourless and tasteless. Studies have shown it to be a cause of lung cancer and other lung diseases. The BC Lung Association have ‘Do it Yourself’ Radon gas testing kits available for purchase online.

Our lungs serve two very important functions. First and foremost they are the means by which we live and breathe, and similarly to the function of the liver and kidneys, lungs cleanse the blood of toxins caused by everyday living. The left lung is smaller than the right to make room for the heart. The lungs are made up of numerous air sacs that expand and contract as we breathe. Remarkably, the lungs contain almost 2,400 kilometres (1,500 miles) of airways and their surface area would be the size of one half of a tennis court!

Emphysema is the early stage of COPD and many doctors will now just tell you that you have COPD. It is a progressive, chronic and eventually a terminal disease. COPD can be caused by various factors but smoking remains primarily the cause. Also some people are born with a rare genetic disorder that causes emphysema. It isn’t inflammation of the airways that cause symptoms, instead, the air sacs are damaged. This makes it increasingly hard to breath. Symptoms include feeling tired, losing weight without trying, and wheezing and shortness of breath.

Lung disease affects every aspect of life and it’s a killer as well. For example every year 250 Canadians die from complications associated with asthma. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease with symptoms that, like, emphysema include shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing and a tightness in the chest. It afflicts children and adults and its cause is not known. What is known are some of the triggers that will cause an asthma attack. Some include dust mites, pollens, viral infections and air pollutants. While there is no cure for asthma, there are ways to alleviate the symptoms. A great resource is the Asthma Society of Canada,  or 1-866-787-4050.

According to the Canadian Lung Association some people think shortness of breath is a normal sign of aging. But it’s not. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it’s a good idea to talk to the doctor. He or she will order a chest X-ray and a “spirometry”. This test measures how much air moves in and out of the lungs. While there is no cure for lung disease, it has been proven that exercise is a big factor in managing the disease.

A recent United States study on lung function and mortality claims that improving lung capacity improves a person’s overall health. The study says performing breathing exercises helps. Physicians at St. Paul’s Hospital’s Pulmonary Clinic recommend physical exercise sometimes supplemented with oxygen rather than performing breathing exercises as a way to improve lung capacity.

The value of exercise cannot be understated according to Dr. Jordan Guenette, Assistant Professor at the Department of Physical Therapy at UBC . Exercise has been shown to improve quality of life and to enhance a patient’s ability to control their condition.

If you have COPD or another form of lung disease, there is community help. Coordinated by the BC Lung Association, Better Breathers of BC offers support groups for those with respiratory illness. Designed for patients with chronic lung diseases like chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, these groups aim to improve their lives through education, encouragement and fellowship. Contact the BC Lung Association at 1-800-665-LUNG (5864) or online at

Author: Steve Almond

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