What is lung disease?

A lung disease diagnosis can be shocking. But you are not alone.

Whether you are living with a lung disease, caring for someone who is sick, or simply wish to understand how you can take better care of your lungs, we are here to help. Lung disease is any problem in the lungs that prevents the lungs from working properly. Anyone can get lung disease. It affects men, women, children, smokers, ex-smokers and never smokers, all of whom are equally worthy of care and support.

Types of lung disease

There are three main types of lung disease, including:

  • Airway diseases:These diseases, such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), affect the airways that carry oxygen and other gases into and out of the lungs. They usually cause a narrowing or blockage of the airways.
  • Lung tissue diseases:These diseases, such as Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF), affect the structure of the lung tissue. Scarring or inflammation of the tissue makes the lungs unable to expand fully (restrictive lung disease). This makes it hard for the lungs to take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide.
  • Lung circulation diseases:These diseases, such as Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH), affect the blood vessels in the lungs. They are caused by clotting, scarring, or inflammation of the blood vessels. They affect the ability of the lungs to take up oxygen and release carbon dioxide.

Who is at risk?

While anyone can get lung disease, your risk can be increased by a number of factors, including age, or if you: 

  • Smoke or have ever smoked.
  • Work or worked in a job that exposed you to dust, gas, fumes or chemicals.
  • Have a family history of lung disease.

There are ways you can reduce your risk of lung disease or, for those already living with a lung disease, maintain the best quality of life available to you.

Warning signs and symptoms

Symptoms of lung disease tend to creep up slowly and people often put the symptoms down to aging or lack of fitness. This leads to many automatically adjusting their daily activities to accommodate or reduce their symptoms rather than getting help. Knowing the early warning signs of lung disease can help you receive treatment before the disease becomes serious or even life threatening. If you experience any of the following warning signs, make an appointment with your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

  • Have a new, persistent or changed cough
  • Cough up mucus, phlegm or blood
  • Get breathless more easily than others your age
  • Experience chest tightness or wheeze
  • Have frequent chest infections
  • Experience chest pain, fatigue
  • Experience sudden weight loss

Remember, you don’t have to navigate through your lung health queries alone. For support contact us.

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Lung Function Tests

Lung function tests provide an easy way of measuring the function of your lungs without the need to physically examine the lungs themselves. Lung function or breathing tests are important investigations which:

  • Help diagnose suspected lung disease
  • Help in planning treatments and deciding whether treatments should be continued, changed, or are no longer needed

Find out more by downloading our Lung Function Test fact sheet.

Lung disease in Australia

  • Lung disease overview
    • There are over 30 types of lung disease
    • Almost 1 in 3 Australians has a lung disease.1
    • 1 in 7 deaths is a result of lung disease.2
    • Lung disease accounts for 10% of the total health burden in Australia.2
    • Lung disease, including chronic respiratory conditions and thoracic cancers, is our nation’s second leading cause of death. 13
    • Anyone can get lung disease. It affects men, women, children, smokers, ex-smokers and never smokers, all who are equally worthy of care and support.
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease
    • 1 in 13 Australians over the age of 40 have COPD and many don’t know it.4
    • COPD is the most common cause of potentially preventable hospitalizations.

    Know more in our Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease section.

  • Lung cancer
    • In 2018, it is estimated over 12,740 Australians will be diagnosed with lung cancer in Australia. That’s 34 people a day.6
    • One Australian dies every hour from lung cancer.6
    • Lung cancer has one of the lowest survival rates of any cancer in Australia with only 17% of Australians surviving 5 years after their diagnosis. 6
    • Lung cancer is Australia’s biggest cancer killer: It kills more people than breast, prostate and ovarian cancers combined.14
    • 1 in 3 women and 1 in 10 men diagnosed with lung cancer have no history of smoking.7

    Explore further at our Lung Cancer page.

  • Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis (IPF)
    • IPF is a rare and progressive lung disease causing irreversible scarring of the lungs.
    • While it is not currently known exactly how many people are affected by IPF in Australia, experts estimate approximately 1,250 people are diagnosed with this devastating disease each year.

    Learn more in our Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis section.

  • Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension (PAH)
    • PAH diagnosis is delayed on average 3.9 years.9
    • On average it takes 5 GP visits before a specialist referral is given.

    Know more in our Pulmonary Arterial Hypertension section.

  • Bronchiectasis
    • Bronchiectasis is a common lung disease caused by chronic infection damaging the lungs.
    • Females and the elderly are more frequently affected.10

    Explore further at our Bronchiectasis page.

  • Rare lung disease in children
    • In Australia there is currently very limited, if any, information, support, treatment and research available for children diagnosed with a rare lung disease.
  • Challenges in Australia - Stigma
    • The stigma surrounding lung disease is a major barrier to accessing research, funding, treatment and support.
    • 1 in 6 Australians believe people with lung disease who have smoked deserve less support.11
    • Over one third (35%) of Australians consider those with lung cancer to be their ‘own worst enemy’ and one in ten will say they ‘got what they deserved’.11
    • We’re quick to judge others but not ourselves – 58% of Australians admit to being a smoker, or having smoked previously, but just 3% would consider it ‘deserved’ if they were diagnosed with lung cancer. 11
    • For 40% of the population, the first question they would ask those diagnosed with lung cancer is whether or not they smoked, even though lung cancer can affect anyone. 11
    • In a global survey conducted in 15 countries, Australians had the least sympathy for someone diagnosed with lung cancer, compared with other cancers, based on its association with tobacco smoking.7

    Those living with lung cancer and other lung conditions feel the knock-on effects of their diagnosis and the stigma 12.

    • One third feel isolated and see their family and friends less often
    • 60% do the things they love, such as hobbies, less often
    • 25% feel shame, guilt or fear of being discriminated against
    • Over 40% feel stigma from the view that lung diseases are self-inflicted and smoking-related
    • Almost 1 in 4 people feel less deserving of help than people with other medical conditions.
Anyone can get lung disease. Take 2 minutes to check in with your lungs.


1 AIHW, 2016, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/australias-health/australias-health-2016/contents/ill-health

2 Lung Disease in Australia, 2014, Woolcock Institute of Medical Research

3 Galaxy Research Omnibus, January 2014 (wave 1)

4 Toelle B, Xuan W, Bird T, Abramson M, Atkinson D, Burton D, James A, Jenkins C, Johns D, Maguire G, Musk A, Walters E, Wood-Baker R, Hunter M, Graham B, Southwell P, Vollmer W, Buist A, Marks G.  Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Med J Aust 2013;198:144-148

5 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018. Admitted patient care 2016–17: Australian hospital statistics. Health services series no. 84. Cat. no. HSE 201. Canberra: AIHW. 

6 Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018, Cancer compendium: information and trends by cancer type,

7 Lung Foundation Australia, Improving outcomes for Australians with lung cancer: A Call to Action (2016)

8 Jo HE, Glaspole I, Grainge C, et al. Baseline characteristics of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis: analysis from the Australian Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis Registry. Eur Respir J 2017; 49:1601592 [https://doi.org/10.1183/13993003.01592-2016].

9 Strange G, Gabbay E,Kermeen F, Williams T, Carrington M, Stewart S, et al. 2013;3 (1):89-9

10 Bronchiectasis Toolbox, Prevalence of bronchiectasis, https://bronchiectasis.com.au/bronchiectasis/bronchiectasis/prevalence

11 Lung Foundation Australia PureProfile Consumer Survey, 2017

12 Lung Foundation Australia Patient Survey, 2017

13 Australian Bureau of Statistics – Australia’s leading causes of death, 2016: http://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/Lookup/by%20Subject/3303.0~2016~Main%20Features~Australia’s%20leading%20causes%20of%20death,%202016~3
14  Australian Institute of Health and Welfare 2018, Deaths in Australia, https://www.aihw.gov.au/reports/life-expectancy-death/deaths-in-australia/contents/leading-causes-of-death