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.
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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 (COPD) and bronchiectasis, versus other respiratory conditions, such as chronic sinusitis and occupational lung disease (occupational lung diseases are classified as restrictive lung diseases (Leader 2019)).
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.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is characterised by airflow limitation 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.
'Hay fever' is a term commonly used to describe allergic rhinitis when it is caused by seasonal exposure to pollen. Allergic rhinitis can also be caused by other exposures, and is one of the most common chronic respiratory conditions.
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.
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.
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.
Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) (2021a) Australian Burden of Disease Study: Impact and causes of illness and death in Australia 2018, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 15 March 2022.
AIHW (2021c) Disease expenditure in Australia 2018-19, AIHW, Australian Government, accessed 15 March 2022.
Leader D (2019) Obstructive vs. Restrictive Lung Diseases, Verywell health, New York, accessed 3 July 2019.
Chronic respiratory conditions
See the Latest updates: Admitted patient care statistics up to 2020–21 (9 February 2023)
2.7% of people aged 35 and over at 30 June 2019 had used health services for COPD in the year prior
COPD prevalence was highest in areas of highest disadvantage (3.8%) among people aged 35 and over at 30 June 2019
COPD prevalence at 30 June 2019 was 2.8% for men and 2.6% for women, for those aged 35 and over
Rates were higher for home-based sleep studies (4.7 per 1,000 population) than laboratory sleep studies (2.1)
In 2019, 134,481 patients received diagnostic sleep study—6.7 per 1,000 Australians aged 18 and over
Claiming rates for sleep studies varied by state and territory, remoteness and socioeconomic area of residence