Chronic respiratory conditions affect the airways, including the lungs and the passages that transfer air from the mouth and nose into the lungs. These conditions are characterised by symptoms such as wheezing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and cough. Chronic respiratory conditions can be grouped in a variety of ways, including obstructive lung diseases and restrictive lung diseases. Obstructive lung diseases are diseases that cause more difficulty with exhaling air, such as asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and bronchiectasis. Restrictive lung diseases are diseases that can cause problems by restricting a person’s ability to inhale air, such as pulmonary fibrosis, chronic sinusitis and occupational lung diseases (Leader 2019). This page focuses on asthma and COPD as these are common respiratory conditions and are associated with poor health and wellbeing.

Risk factors associated with chronic respiratory conditions can be behavioural, environmental or genetic. Risk factors that cannot be changed include age and genetic predisposition. Risk factors that can be changed include smoking; exposure to environmental fumes, carbon-based cooking and heating fuels; occupational hazards; poor nutrition; overweight/obesity; and sedentary lifestyle.

Chronic respiratory conditions for 2020–21

Data for 2020–21 are based on information self-reported by the participants of the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) 2020–21 National Health Survey (NHS). Using the self-reported data from NHS 2020–21, almost one-third (30%) of Australians reported having chronic respiratory conditions. Of the estimated 7.5 million Australians with these conditions, 5.1 million (20% of the total population) had allergic rhinitis ('hay fever'); 2.7 million (11%) had asthma and 2.0 million (8.0%) had chronic sinusitis (ABS 2022).

Previous versions of the NHS have primarily been administered by trained ABS Interviewers and were conducted face-to-face. The 2020–21 NHS was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic. To maintain the safety of survey respondents and ABS Interviewers, the survey was collected via online, self-completed forms.

Non-response is usually reduced through Interviewer follow up of households who have not responded. As this was not possible during lockdown periods, there were lower response rates than previous NHS cycles, which impacted sample representativeness for some sub-populations. Additionally, the impact of COVID-19 and lockdowns might also have had direct or indirect impacts on people’s usual behaviour over the 2020–21 period.

Due to these changes, comparisons with previous asthma and COPD data over time are not recommended.

On this page, comparisons over time (trends) only contain data from the NHS 2017–18 and prior versions.

How common are chronic respiratory conditions?

The ABS 2017–18 NHS provides estimates of the self‑reported prevalence of chronic respiratory conditions. Chronic respiratory conditions affect almost one-third (31%) of Australians. Of the estimated 7.4 million Australians with these conditions, 4.7 million (19% of the total population) had allergic rhinitis ('hay fever'); 2.7 million (11%) had asthma and 2.0 million (8.4%) had chronic sinusitis.

COPD affects mainly middle-aged and older people. While it is occasionally reported in younger age groups, in those aged 45 and over there is more certainty that the condition is COPD and not another respiratory condition. The 2017–18 NHS estimated that 464,000 (4.8%) Australians aged 45 and over had COPD (ABS 2019). A range of estimates of the prevalence of COPD have been derived from different surveys (for example, Toelle et al. 2013). It is important to note that accurately estimating the prevalence of COPD requires clinical testing.

Trend

During the last decade:

  • The prevalence of asthma has increased, from 9.9% of the population in 2007–08 to 11% of the population in 2017–18 after adjusting for differences in age structure.
  • The prevalence of COPD among people aged 45 and over has remained relatively stable after adjusting for differences in age structure (3.9% of the population in 2007–08 and 4.6% of the population in 2017–18) (Figure 1).
     

This figure shows the prevalence of asthma and COPD (for ages 45 and above) by sex from 2007–08 to 2017–18. In general, the prevalence of asthma and COPD has increased during last decade, from 9.9% of the population in 2007–08 to 11% of the population in 2017–18 for asthma, and from 3.9% of the population in 2007-08 to 4.6% of the population in 2017-18 for COPD.

Sex and age

The prevalence of asthma and COPD varied by sex and age (Figure 2):

  • Asthma affects people of all ages. Asthma was more common in boys at younger ages (0–14) and more common in women at older ages (25 years and over, with the exception of the 35–44 year age group which was similar between men and women).
  • COPD mainly occurs in people aged 45 and over, and the prevalence tends to increase with age. COPD was more prevalent in women than men for those aged 55–64; however, the prevalence was similar between the sexes in other age groups.
     

This figure shows the self-reported prevalence of asthma and COPD (for ages 45 and above) varies by sex and age. Asthma is more common in boys at younger ages (0–14) and more common in women at older ages (25 years and over, except for the 35–44-year age group which was similar between men and women). COPD is recorded only in ages of 45 and above. COPD is more common in males aged 65 and above.

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Comorbidity

People with chronic respiratory conditions often have other chronic and long-term conditions. This is called ‘comorbidity’, which describes any additional disease that is experienced by a person with a disease of interest.

In the 2017–18 NHS, for people aged 45 and over with:

There is an increasing recognition that asthma and COPD may occur together. Overall, about 20% of patients with obstructive airway disease have been diagnosed with both asthma and COPD (Gibson and MacDonald 2015).

Impact of natural events on chronic respiratory conditions

Natural events such as natural disasters or extreme weather changes can affect human health drastically, and those events that affect the air quality can have a direct impact on chronic respiratory conditions. The two natural events that affected chronic respiratory conditions in the recent times are thunderstorm asthma and the bushfires of 2019–20.

Thunderstorm asthma

Thunderstorm asthma can occur suddenly in spring or summer when there is a lot of pollen in the air and the weather is hot, dry, windy and stormy. People with asthma and/or hay fever need to be extra cautious to avoid flare-ups induced by thunderstorm asthma between September and January in Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland because it can be very serious (National Asthma Council Australia 2019). In 2016, a serious thunderstorm asthma epidemic was triggered in Melbourne when very high pollen counts coincided with adverse meteorological conditions, resulting in 3,365 people presenting at hospital emergency departments over 30 hours, and 10 deaths (Thien et al. 2018). Following this event, a thunderstorm asthma forecasting system has been developed to give Victorians early warning of possible epidemic thunderstorm asthma events in pollen season (Victoria State Government 2022). See Natural environment and health.

Australian bushfires of 201920

The bushfires that swept across Australia in 2019–20 resulted in 33 deaths, destruction of over 3,000 houses and millions of hectares (Parliament of Australia 2020). Bushfire smoke exposure was significantly associated with an increased risk of respiratory morbidity (Liu et al. 2015). Nationally, hospitalisation rates increased for asthma and COPD coinciding with increased bushfire activity during the 2019–20 bushfire season (AIHW 2021b). For asthma, the highest increase was 36% in the week beginning 12 January 2020 (2.4 per 100,000 persons) compared to the previous 5-year average (1.7 per 100,000 persons). For COPD, the highest increase was 30% in the week beginning 1 December 2019 (2.0 per 100,000 persons) compared to the previous 5-year average (1.6 per 100,000 persons).

For Emergency Department presentations, asthma saw the highest increase of 44% in the week beginning 12 January 2020 (4.7 per 100,000 persons compared to the previous bushfire season (3.3 per 100,000 persons), while COPD saw the largest increase of 31% in the week beginning 12 January 2020 (1.4 per 100,000 persons) compared to the previous bushfire season (1.1 per 100,000 persons). See Natural environment and

Impact

Deaths

In 2020, COPD was the fifth leading underlying cause of death in Australia, with 6,311 deaths (3.9% of all deaths) (AIHW 2022a). The trend in the previous 11 years shows that the age-standardised COPD death rate for people aged 45 and over fluctuated; the year 2014 had the highest COPD death rate at 70 deaths per 100,000 population, and the year 2020 saw a sharp drop making it the lowest death rate in the past 11 years (53 deaths per 100,000 population) (Figure 3). For more information on COPD deaths see Causes of death.

COVID-19 impact

Death rates from all respiratory diseases combined showed a substantial fall in 2020, with rates particularly low for females and during the winter months compared with previous years. This is discussed in detail in ‘Chapter 2 Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.

During the COVID-19 pandemic (as at 31 March 2022), 17.4% of COVID-19 related deaths due to pre-existing conditions was contributed to by chronic respiratory conditions, the fourth highest of all chronic conditions. In addition, higher than expected deaths were observed for chronic lower respiratory conditions in 2021. For more information see ‘Chapter 1 The impact of a new disease: COVID-19 from 2020, 2021 and into 2022’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
 

This figure shows the trends of deaths due to selected respiratory conditions from 2009 to 2020. During the last decade, the age-standardised COPD death rate among people aged 45 and over fluctuated, with highest in 2014 and 2015 at 70 deaths per 100,000 population and lowest in 2020 at 53 deaths per 100,000 population; the age-standardised asthma death rates remained similar throughout.

Burden of disease

Burden of disease refers to the quantified impact of living with and dying prematurely from a disease or injury.

Chronic respiratory diseases contribute substantially to the disease burden in the Australian population. In recognition of this burden, the National Asthma Strategy was launched in January 2018 (Department of Health 2018), and the National Strategic Action Plan for Lung Conditions was launched in February 2019 (Department of Health 2019).

The Australian Burden of Disease Study 2018 found that respiratory diseases contributed 7.3% of the total burden of disease and injury in Australia in 2018 (AIHW 2021a):

  • Respiratory diseases were ranked as the seventh leading disease group contributing to total burden, after cancer, musculoskeletal conditions, cardiovascular diseases, mental health conditions and substance use disorders, injuries and neurological conditions.
  • COPD contributed 48% of the respiratory diseases burden, and asthma contributed 36%.
  • At the individual disease level: COPD was the fourth leading cause of total burden of disease; asthma was ranked as the ninth leading cause of total burden overall, but was the leading cause of total burden among children aged 1–14.

See Burden of Disease.

Expenditure

The Australian Disease Expenditure Study showed that in 2018–19, an estimated 3.3% ($4.5 billion) of total disease expenditure in the Australian health system was attributed to respiratory conditions (AIHW 2021c):

  • COPD cost the Australian health system an estimated $934.9 million, representing 21% of disease expenditure on respiratory conditions and 0.7% of total disease expenditure.
  • Asthma cost the Australian health system an estimated $798.5 million, representing 17.9% of disease expenditure for respiratory conditions and 0.6% of total disease expenditure.

In addition, the AIHW report Health system spending per case of disease and for certain risk factors( AIHW 2022b) showed that for respiratory diseases, health system spending per case of disease was estimated at $514 on average in 2018–19. The analysis also showed that 37% of health system spending on respiratory diseases could be attributed to potentially preventable risk factors in 2018–19. Within the respiratory diseases group, around two-thirds of estimated health system spending on COPD in 2018–19 could be attributed to tobacco use alone (AIHW 2022b).

See Disease expenditure.

Treatment and management

Primary care

General practitioners (GPs) play an important role in managing chronic respiratory conditions in the community, but there is currently no nationally consistent primary health care data collection to monitor provision of care by GPs.

One of the key steps in managing asthma is for patients to follow a personal asthma action plan developed with their GP. An asthma action plan is a written self-management plan which is prepared by a health care professional and can help people with asthma to manage their condition and reduce the severity of acute asthma flare-ups (AIHW 2020). The plan outlines what to do if symptoms flare up and what to do in an asthma emergency (National Asthma Council Australia 2021). According to the 2020–21 NHS, an estimated 35% of people with self-reported asthma across all ages had a written asthma action plan. Two-thirds (66%) of children under 18 years of age had a written action plan, while just over one quarter (27%) of people aged 18 and over had a written action plan (ABS 2022). See General practice, allied health and other primary care services.

Hospitalisations

People with chronic respiratory conditions require admission to hospital when they cannot be managed at home or by a GP, or their symptoms exacerbate acutely. In 2019–20, asthma was the principal diagnosis in 32,822 hospitalisations for people of all ages and COPD was the principal diagnosis in 70,951 hospitalisations for people aged 45 and over. Trends over time show that:

  • The hospitalisation rate for asthma fluctuated during the last 11 years, with the highest rate at 183 per 100,000 population in 2009–10 and the lowest at 130 per 100,000 population in 2019-20.
  • The hospitalisation rate for COPD also fluctuated, with the highest at 757 per 100,000 population in 2016–17 and the lowest at 623 per 100,000 population in 2019–20 (Figure 4).

Hospitalisations due to asthma and COPD are classified as potentially preventable. Potentially preventable hospitalisations are defined as admissions to hospital where the hospitalisation could have potentially been prevented through the provision of appropriate individualised preventative health interventions and early disease management usually delivered in primary care and community-based care settings (AIHW 2019).
 

This figure shows the trends of hospitalisation due to selected respiratory conditions from 2008–09 to 2019–20. During the last decade, the hospitalisation rate of asthma and COPD fluctuated with the highest for asthma at 183 per 100,000 population in 2009–10, and the lowest at 130 per 100,000 population in 2019–20; for COPD the highest was at 757 per 100,000 population in 2016–17, and the lowest at 623 per 100,000 population in 2019-20.

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COVID-19 impact

The overall rate of hospitalisations and emergency department presentations decreased since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. See Hospitals. The hospitalisation rates for asthma and COPD in 2019–20 were the lowest in the last 11 years, potentially attributable to an indirect impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the health protection measures put in place which supported physical distancing, promotion of hand-hygiene and mask wearing. Furthermore, the health protection measures encouraged a reduction in travel and traffic contributing to improved air quality for a period of time (Abrams et al. 2020; Thompson 2021). These measures not only reduced the transmission of the COVID-19 virus during the 2019­–20 period, but also potentially the spread of colds and flu which are common triggers for asthma and COPD exacerbations that can lead to hospitalisation (National Asthma Council Australia 2022). See ‘Chapter 2 Changes in the health of Australians during the COVID-19 period’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.

During the national lockdown beginning on 23 March 2020 following the pandemic outbreak, emergency department presentations for asthma and COPD decreased:

  • For asthma, the rate of presentations fell from 26 per 100,000 population in March 2020 to 12 per 100,000 population in April 2020. This continued in May 2020 (11 per 100,000 population) until June 2020 when restrictions began to ease across the country and presentations rose to 19 per 100,000 population (Figure 5. When compared with April and May in 2019, the rates of asthma presentations observed in 2020 were halved.
  • For COPD, the rate of presentations for COPD fell from 39 per 100,000 population in March 2020 to 28 per 100,000 population in April 2020. This rate increased slightly in May 2020 to 30 per 100,000 population and June 2020 at 33 per 100,000 population, during which the restrictions began to ease across the country. When compared with April and May in 2019, the rates of COPD presentations observed in 2020 fell by 29% and 34%, respectively (Figure 5).

While the long-term impact of COVID-19 on the respiratory system is being researched, evidence shows that COVID-19 does not directly impact the risk of increasing asthma severity and vice versa (Lee et al. 2020; Lieberman-Cribbin et al. 2020; Mather et al. 2021). However, there is increasing evidence showing that COPD patients with COVID-19 have greater risk of mortality, severity of infection and higher likelihood of requiring Intensive Care Unit (ICU) support than those without COPD (Cazzola et al. 2021; Clark et al. 2021; Rawand et al. 2021; Wells 2021). See ‘Chapter 1 The impact of a new disease: COVID-19 from 2020, 2021 and into 2022’ in Australia’s health 2022: data insights.
 

This figure shows the trends of monthly emergency department presentations due to selected respiratory conditions from July 2018 to June 2020. During the national lockdown beginning on 23 March 2020 following the pandemic outbreak, emergency department presentations for asthma and COPD decreased. For asthma, the rate of presentations fell from 26 per 100,000 population in March 2020 to 12 per 100,000 population in April 2020. For COPD, the rate of presentations for COPD fell from 39 per 100,000 population in March 2020 to 28 per 100,000 population in April 2020. Comparing to April and May in 2019, the rates of asthma presentations observed in 2020 were halved.

Variation between population groups

The impact of asthma and COPD varies between population groups, with rates of prevalence, hospitalisation, death and disease burden being up to 2.0 times as high in Remote and very remote areas as in Major cities. Meanwhile, the impact of asthma and COPD increases with decreasing socioeconomic position. Rates were 1.3–3.2 times as high in the lowest socioeconomic areas compared with the highest (Figure 6).
 

This figure shows the impact of selected chronic respiratory conditions on different population groups in 2019-20. In general, the impact of chronic respiratory conditions varies among population groups, with prevalence, hospitalisation, death and disease burden rates being up to 2.0 times as high in Remote and very remote areas than in Major cities. The impact of chronic respiratory conditions increases with increasing socioeconomic position. Rates were 1.3–3.2 times as high in lowest compared with highest socioeconomic areas.

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Where do I go for more information?

For more information on chronic respiratory conditions, see:

Visit Chronic respiratory conditions for more on this topic.

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