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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 2011–12 (ABS 2012). Note that these data were based on self-reported information and therefore there are associated limitations in their interpretation. See Data sources for monitoring health conditions for details.

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 respiratory conditions were managed in approximately 1 in 5 encounters from 2004–05 to 2013–14 (Britt et al. 2014).

In 2012, there were 12,465 deaths where the underlying cause was a respiratory condition (acute or chronic) (ABS 2015). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a leading cause of death in Australia and internationally, and asthma deaths rates in Australia are high in comparison with many other countries (AIHW: Poulos et al. 2014).

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 2011–12 (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, and includes conditions such as emphysema and chronic bronchitis. An estimated 530,000 Australians had COPD in 2011–12 (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 3.7 million Australians in 2011–12 (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 2011–12 (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 2013, there were 3,235 people on the Australian Cystic Fibrosis Data Registry (Cystic Fibrosis Australia 2015).

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 quoted above are based on self-reported data in the 2011–13 Australian Health Survey. As noted, there are some limitations associated with this method of data collection (see also Data sources for monitoring health conditions). 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.


ABS 2012. Australian Health Survey: First Results, 2011–12 . ABS cat. no. 4364.0.55.001. Canberra: ABS. Viewed on 24 April 2015, <www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/4364.0.55.0012011-12?OpenDocument>.

ABS 2015. Causes of Death, 2013, ABS cat. no. 3303.0. Canberra: ABS. Viewed on 24 April 2015, <http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/DetailsPage/3303.02013?OpenDocument>.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Poulos LM, Cooper SJ, Ampon R, Reddel HK and Marks GB 2014. Mortality from asthma and COPD in Australia. Cat. no. ACM 30. Canberra: AIHW.

Britt H, Miller G, Henderson J, Bayram C, Valenti L, Harrison C, Pan Y, Wong C, Charles J, Chambers T, Gordon J, Pollack AJ. A decade of Australian general practice activity 2004–05 to 2013–14. General practice series no. 37. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2014.

Cystic Fibrosis Australia 2015. Cystic Fibrosis in Australia 2013. Baulkham Hills: Cystic Fibrosis Australia.