Respiratory health in the workplace guidance
Respiratory health in the workplace guidance: In today’s Choices for Wellbeing article, we’re looking at some of the most common respiratory health issues and what you can do to treat or prevent them.
Influenza (flu) is a highly infectious and very common viral illness that is spread by coughs and sneezes. You can catch it at any time of the year, but it’s especially common in winter.
In February 2018, a new super-charged strain, known as Australian flu, hit the UK.
It’s not the same as the common cold, as it is caused by a different group of viruses and symptoms tend to be more severe and last for longer.
- Sudden high temperature
- Sore throat
- General aches and pains.
- Loss of appetite
- Feeling sick
Treatment for flu
There is usually no need to visit your GP, just rest, keep warm and drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration.
You can take paracetamol or ibuprofen to lower your temperature and relieve aches.
If you have flu-like symptoms and are 65+ or pregnant, you should consider visiting your GP.
The flu can be more serious for those with a long-term medical condition, such as diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney or neurological disease, or those with a weakened immune system. In these cases, antiviral medication may need to be prescribed.
Sinusitis is another common example of respiratory health problems, caused by the swelling of the lining of the sinuses, small, air-filled cavities behind your cheekbones and forehead, caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
Sinusitis typically causes a high temperature, pain and tenderness in the face, and a blocked or runny nose.
Treatment for sinusitis
Sinusitis often clears up by itself, and about two-thirds of those who get the condition do not need to see their GP. On average, sinusitis takes between 10-15 days to clear.
Over-the-counter painkillers and decongestants can be used to relieve facial pain and a blocked nose. Antibiotics are unlikely to help unless the sinusitis becomes persistent.
Pneumonia is inflammation of the tissue in one or both of your lungs. It is usually caused by an infection of the tiny air sacs in the lungs, which fill up with fluid.
Common symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Difficulty breathing
Prevention and treatment for pneumonia
Good hygiene and a healthy lifestyle can help prevent pneumonia. Avoid smoking as it damages your lungs and increases the chance of infection.
Coughing helps to clear mucus from your lungs, which speeds up recovery. For this reason, cough medicines are not recommended.
Mild pneumonia can usually be treated at home with painkillers, antibiotics, rest and fluids. People at high risk of pneumonia should be offered vaccinations.
For people with other health conditions, pneumonia can be severe and may need to be treated in hospital.
Bronchitis is an infection of the main airways (bronchi) of the lungs, which causes them to become irritated and inflamed.
The main symptom is a cough which may bring up yellow-grey mucus, but you may also experience a sore throat, wheezing and a blocked nose.
Typically, bronchitis can be treated easily at home, but you should see your GP if you have an underlying heart or lung condition, such as asthma or heart failure, or your symptoms include:
- Severe coughing that lasts longer than three weeks
- A constant fever lasting more than three days
- Coughing up mucus which is streaked with blood
Treatment for bronchitis
In most cases, bronchitis will clear up by itself within a few weeks without the need for treatment, this is known as acute bronchitis.
During this time you should drink lots of fluid and get plenty of rest, but see your GP if your symptoms worsen.
Where symptoms last longer than three months, it is known as chronic bronchitis. There is no cure for this, but medications can help relieve symptoms and your GP will advise you on this.
With either type of bronchitis, it is very important to avoid smoking and smoky environments, as this can make your symptoms significantly worse.
Asthma is one of the long-term respiratory health conditions. It can develop at any age, where certain triggers create inflammation and narrowing of the tubes (bronchi) that carry air in and out of the lungs.
Severe onset of symptoms is known as an asthma attack and may require hospital treatment. Sometimes, although rarely, they can be life-threatening.
Triggers will differ from person to person and can include:
- House dust mites
- Animal fur
- Tobacco smoke
- Cold air
- Chest infections
Symptoms will include coughing, wheezing and breathlessness, as well as an increase in the production of sticky mucus (phlegm).
If diagnosed as a child, the symptoms may disappear in teenage years, but they can return in adulthood.
The cause of asthma is not fully understood, but it often runs in families. In the UK, 5.4 million people are currently receiving treatment for it.
Several factors can increase the likelihood of developing asthma, including:
- A family history of asthma or other allergies
- Having bronchitis as a child
- Exposure to tobacco smoke in the womb or as a child
- Premature babies with a low birth rate of less than 2kg/4.5lb
Some types of asthma are work-related and can be made worse by dust, fumes, and certain activities that expose employees to specific substances, such as latex or flour.
Treatment for asthma
Everyone with asthma should be able to lead a full life with few restrictions, and the aim for treating asthma is to get it under control and keep it that way.
The most effective way of taking an asthma medicine is usually through a device called an inhaler, which delivers the drug directly into the airways through the mouth.
Treatments are dependent on symptoms and, as a result, the levels of medication can fluctuate. Regular checks are carried out by medical professionals trained in asthma management to ensure it is under control and that treatment is effective.
Emphysema is another example of chronic respiratory health problems that gradually destroys the lungs. People with emphysema find it hard to breathe in enough oxygen, and also struggle to breathe out.
The disease cannot be reversed, but the progression of symptoms can be slowed down.
Cigarette smoking is by far the most common reason that people develop emphysema, and it is also the most preventable cause.
Smoking destroys lung tissue and causes inflammation and irritation of the airways. This can cause the disease to get worse.
Other risk factors include:
- Air pollution
- Male sex
Tuberculosis (TB) is a bacterial infection spread through inhaling tiny droplets from the coughs or sneezes of an infected person.
It is a serious condition but can be cured with proper treatment. It mainly affects the lungs, but can affect any part of the body, including the bones and nervous system.
- A persistent cough of more than three weeks that brings up phlegm, which may be bloody
- Weight loss
- Night sweats
- High temperature (fever)
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Loss of appetite
You should seek medical advice if you have a cough that lasts more than three weeks or if you cough up blood.
Treatments for tuberculosis
TB infection can usually be cured, and most people will need a course of antibiotics, usually for six months.
Treatment can last as long as 18 months if you are infected with a drug-resistant form of TB, and you may need to take several different kinds of antibiotics.
If you are in close contact with someone who has TB, tests may be carried out to see if you are also infected. These can include a chest X-ray, blood tests and a skin test called the Mantoux test.
Lung cancer is one of the most common and serious types of cancer, with around 46,700 new cases being diagnosed every year in the UK.
Lung cancer is rare in people under 40 years old, with rates increasing sharply with age. It is most commonly diagnosed in people who are 70–74 years old.
Smoking causes 85–90% of lung cancers, with smokers 15 times more likely to die from it than non-smokers.
Symptoms of lung cancer can include:
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Loss of appetite
- Coughing up phlegm or/and blood
If the cancer has spread, symptoms might include bone pain, difficulty breathing, abdominal pain, headaches, weakness, and confusion.
Prevention and treatments for lung cancer
Not smoking is the most effective way to avoid getting lung cancer.
Eating a low-fat diet with a high-fibre intake, including at least five portions a day of fresh fruit and vegetables and plenty of whole grains, may help reduce your risk of lung cancer.
There is strong evidence to suggest that regular exercise can lower the risk of developing lung cancer and other types of cancer.
Treatment for lung cancer will depend on several factors, such as the type of lung cancer, its size and position, how far advanced the cancer is, and an individual’s overall health.
Lung cancer is usually treated with a combination of therapies, including:
- Radiation therapy
- Chemotherapy (options include a combination of drugs)
- Targeted therapy
5 ways to improve your respiratory health
We can all take small steps to improve our overall wellbeing and prevent respiratory health issues. Here are five of the easiest ways that you can improve your respiratory health.
1. Quit smoking
This is by far the most effective way to protect yourself from respiratory health conditions.
2. Cardiovascular exercise
Everything from running and cycling to swimming and aerobics can help to strengthen your heart and enrich your respiratory system. Cardiovascular exercise enables your lungs to extract carbon dioxide from your blood and send oxygen throughout your body.
3. Eat well
Choose nutritious meals to improve your respiratory health, avoiding red meats and processed foods. The antioxidants in fruit and veg protect your respiratory system from all sorts of infections and toxins.
4. Improve your hand hygiene
While hand sanitisers remove or kill bacteria, they don’t do the same to viruses. Thorough handwashing is much more effective, removing bacteria, viruses, and physical dirt.
5. Catch it – Bin it – Kill it
Always use a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Discard it safely, and make sure that you wash and sanitise your hands as soon as you can.
For more information on respiratory diseases and their effect on your workplace, or if you’d like to find out how our occupational health services can help to reduce sickness absence and improve the health and wellbeing of staff, give us a call today.