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Respiratory conditions affect the airways, including the lungs as well as the passages that transfer air from the mouth and nose into the lungs. They can be long lasting (chronic) or short term (acute) and can cause ill health, disability and death.

According to the Australian Health Survey, an estimated 6.3 million Australians suffered from a chronic respiratory condition in 2010–11 (ABS 2012).

Respiratory conditions are believed to be the most commonly managed problems in general practice. Data from the Bettering the Evaluation and Care of Health survey of general practitioners suggest that they were managed at a rate of approximately 20 times per 100 encounters from 2002–03 to 2011–12 (Britt et al. 2012).

In 2011, there were 12,529 deaths where a respiratory condition was the underlying cause (ABS 2013). This was the third most common cause group following cancer and diseases of the circulatory system.

Common chronic respiratory conditions

Chronic respiratory conditions can be grouped together in a variety of ways. One common grouping is obstructive lung diseases (diseases affecting the flow of air in and out of the lungs), such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and bronchiectasis, versus other respiratory conditions, such as chronic sinusitis and occupational lung disease.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disorder of the airways. People with asthma experience episodes of wheezing, breathlessness and chest tightness due to widespread narrowing of the airways. An estimated 2.3 million Australians had asthma in 2010–11 (ABS 2012).

COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) limits airflow in the lungs, which can lead to mild or severe shortness of breath that is not fully reversible even with treatment. COPD is a serious long-term disease that mainly affects older people. An estimated 530,000 Australians had COPD in 2010–11 (ABS 2012).

'Hay fever' is a term commonly used to describe allergic rhinitis when it is caused by seasonal exposure to pollen. Allergic rhinitis is one of the most common chronic respiratory conditions, reported by an estimated 3 million Australians had asthma and an estimated 3.7 million Australians 2010–11 (ABS 2012).

Bronchiectasis refers to an abnormal and irreversible widening of air passages in the lungs. People with bronchiectasis are prone to infections as mucus accumulates in the airways and becomes stagnant. It has a number of causes, including COPD, cystic fibrosis, low antibody levels and infections such as tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles.

Chronic sinusitis is the inflammation of the lining of one or more sinuses (large air cavities inside the face bones). It occurs when normal draining of the sinuses is obstructed by swelling, excessive mucus, or an abnormality in the structure of the sinuses. It can cause discomfort and pain and is often linked to similar inflammation inside the nose. An estimated 1.9 million Australians had chronic sinusitis in 2010–11 (ABS 2012).

Cystic fibrosis (CF) is a hereditary disease in which mucus from glands is thicker and stickier than normal, affecting the lungs and other organs. Difficulty in clearing mucus from the airway leads to chest infections and airflow obstruction, with related problems such as bronchiectasis and shortened life expectancy. In December 2011, there were 3,133 people on the Australian Cystic Fibrosis Registry.

Occupational lung diseases result from breathing in harmful dusts or fumes, such as silica, asbestos and coal dust. This exposure typically occurs in the workplace. Pneumoconiosis, or scarring of the lung tissue caused by inhaled dust, is one of the most common forms of occupational lung disease.

Sleep apnoea is a condition that affects breathing while asleep. It reduces airflow which causes intermittent dips in the amount of oxygen in the blood and disturbs sleep. The individual with sleep apnoea is often unaware of the night-time breathing difficulties.

Pulmonary fibrosis is a scarring or thickening of the lungs. It affects the transfer of oxygen into the blood. Sometimes a cause can be identified for this but often the cause is not known. In this case it is described as idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

Limitations of the data

Australian national prevalence statistics for asthma, COPD, allergic rhinitis and chronic sinusitis mentioned above are based on self-reported data in the Australian Health Survey 2011–13. There is little information available on the overall prevalence in Australia for bronchiectasis, occupational lung diseases, sleep apnoea and pulmonary fibrosis.

Further information

More comprehensive information can be found in the reports listed on our publications page.

References

ABS 2012. Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011–12 . ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS. Viewed on 13 May 2013, <www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4364.0.55.0012011-12?OpenDocument>.

ABS 2013. Causes of Death, 2013, ABS cat. no. 3303.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed on 13 May 2013, <www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/3303.0Chapter22011>.

Britt H, Miller G, Charles J, Henderson J, Valenti L, Harrison C et al. 2012. A decade of Australian general practice activity 2002–03 to 2011–12 . General practice series no. 32. Sydney: Sydney University Press.