The disease, also known as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), often causes shortness of breath and leads to a high rate of strokes and fatalities.
However, while most smokers know the consequences, many only go to hospitals when the problem becomes serious, said Ngo Quy Chau, deputy director of Bach Mai Hospital.
Prof. Chau said that COPD ranked sixth in the list of 10 common diseases in the world, and ranked fourth in the list of those causing high death rates, including coronary thrombosis, cancer and cardiovascular diseases.
In Vietnam, Chau said, initial research into the disease in 2009 showed that the rate of bronchitis sufferers was 4.2 percent, and the male and female ratio was 7/1.9.
About 25-30 percent of the 6,000 patients being treated at Bach Mai Hospital’s respiratory centre are COPD patients. Most of them are more than 50 years old and 90 percent of them have smoked more than 20 cigarettes per day for many years.
But cigarette smoke is not the only cause of the disease. People in regular contact with occupational dust and smoke from coal, wood and straw cookers also suffer. Dust and smoke from heavy traffic are also contributors.
Nguyen Van Thanh, a 63-year-old patient from Ha Nam province, said he had the disease for nearly 20 years.
In 2005, the symptom became more serious. Now he has to go to hospital three or four times a year, but has still not completely given up smoking.
Meanwhile, Mai Thi Ngoc, 60, another patient from Haiphong City, has been treated at the hospital for breathing difficulty and tiredness. Her chest is sunken and her body is described as “scraggy”.
Doctors said that she suffered from the disease for smoking pipe tobacco. Ngoc admitted that she had smoked pipe tobacco since she was 10.
Prof. Chau said that many COPD patients went to hospital for treatment and then self-treated for years using their old prescription. Thus, in case the disease gets worse, their medication does not match the symptoms.
“COPD is a hidden killer. It does not cause immediate danger, but patients regularly lack oxygen in their blood, causing tiredness, breathing difficulty, coughing and even paralysis,” he said.
If a person has COPD, it is almost bound to get worse. The symptoms will also become clearer and stronger, Chau added.
At first, sufferers can tire after climbing four to five floors, however, this eventually reduces to two or three floors.
Treatment for COPD costs much more than for asthma, tuberculosis and preumonia, he said.
The disease cannot be cured completely, medicines only help ease the symptoms and slow down lung damage.
A period of treatment can take about VND7-8 million (US$300-380).
Chau said that the first symptom of the disease was a cough and expectorating in the morning.