Monday, October 26, 2009

Save your breath

Enlarged view of lung tissue showing the diffe...Image via Wikipedia

Early detection and treatment can help COPD sufferers breathe better

Eveline Gan

FOR more than three decades, Mr Mohamed Zaid Bin Sahari, a heavy smoker, lived with a chronic cough that he thought was a common smoker's ailment. Then in 2000, he started suffering from breathlessness.

"Every step that I took felt like I just ran 1km," said the 56-year-old, who used to puff 40 sticks of cigarettes daily.

The condition, which affected him so much that he was unable to walk or talk, almost killed him in 2007.

The unbearable breathlessness Mr Mohamed Zaid experienced was a result of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), a serious respiratory disease that is the eighth most common cause of deaths in Singapore, according to the Ministry of Health.

Presently, about 64,000 people here suffer from moderate to severe COPD. And the number is expected to rise, according to respiratory specialist Dr Ong Kian Chung, president of the COPD Association (Singapore).

Dr Ong added that sufferers are also expected to exhibit symptoms of the disease at a younger age, as youth are experimenting smoking at an average age of 16.

Smokers, including second-hand smokers, are at risk of the condition because harmful gases from smoking can cause an abnormal inflammatory response in the lungs. Those who are regularly exposed to pollutants, such as industrial dust and exhaust fumes, are also at risk.

Out of breath

The debilitating disease, which generally affects those above 40 years old, causes the patient to gradually lose the ability to breathe. "It restricts the patients' ability to carry out normal activities and is often undiagnosed in the early and moderate stages," said Dr Ong.

For Mr Mohamed Zaid, being out of breath constantly meant that he was unable to keep up with his daily activities. He also had to take medical leave from work often because he felt unwell. Mr Mohamed Zaid is currently unemployed.

"In the worst-case scenario, the patient literally runs out of breath and it can be fatal," said Dr Ong.

The good news is that COPD can be treated, the doctor said.

And the earlier the diagnosis and treatment, the better the end result, added Dr Tan Tze Lee, a general practitioner at The Edinburgh Clinic, and vice-president of COPD Association (Singapore).

According to Dr Tan, early detection and treatment has been shown to improve patients' health and quality of life.

Simply breathe into the mouthpiece of the spirometer to find out if you have the condition.

GPs to offer COPD screening

Presently, 200 local GPs are equipped and trained to offer COPD screening in their clinics using handheld spirometers, which are usually available only at specialist clinics and hospitals. (Visit for clinic details.) A spirometer is an instrument that measures how well the lungs are working.

Under the "Save Your Breath Singapore" scheme initiated by the COPD Association (Singapore), patients can find out if they're suffering from the disease by taking a breathing test. Screening and consultation fees vary at different clinics.

Smokers and ex-smokers above 40 years old, especially those with chronic cough, lots of phlegm and who suffer from breathlessness, are urged to go for the spirometry test.

Unfortunately for Mr Mohamed Zaid, smoking has caused irreparable damage to his lungs. Although he feels better with treatment, Mr Mohamed Zaid's lung function is currently only at a low 32 per cent. A normal person's lung function is typically above 80 per cent.

"Mr Mohamed Zaid is one example of a COPD patient who suffered the disease for years without knowing it. By the time it was found out, his lungs have severely deteriorated," said Dr Ong, who added that more than half of COPD sufferers are unaware of their condition.

Dr Tan added: "Once the damage of the lungs occurs, it's not reversible. It simply becomes worse over time. If we can 'catch' COPD earlier, we can reduce a lot of suffering and improve patients' quality of life."

Women with COPD

Women can also get COPD. In fact, female COPD sufferers may be worse off compared with male patients.

According to respiratory specialist Dr Ong Kian Chung, some studies have found that symptoms of the disease may affect women more because they have smaller lungs. Another reason may be due to a later diagnosis, he said.

"Women may suffer more in silence, so by the time they seek medical attention, their lung function would have severely deteriorated."

From TODAY, Health – Tuesday, 29-Sep-2009