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Respiratory disease: Signs and Symptoms

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Signs and symptoms in respiratory disease

Respiratory disease is common throughout the world and it accounts for high levels of mortality and morbidity. Diseases range from mild to severe and can be acute or chronic. Chronic respiratory diseases include asthma and Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which is an umbrella term for conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema. COPD is the fifth highest cause of mortality in the UK, and asthma is one of the most common conditions with more than 5 million sufferers. In both conditions patients present with similar symptoms and differentiating between them can be difficult. In addition, symptoms commonly seen in respiratory disease are also present in non-respiratory conditions, further compounding the complexity of diagnosis. However, the nature of the symptoms and the pattern in which they present gives valuable information to aid diagnosis and management. Respiratory symptoms have a significant impact on quality of life and can also provide indications for future health; therefore it is important that they are not underestimated.

This resource, which is based on typical case scenarios, is offered at an intermediate level and includes five assessment questions to support your continuing professional development. Complete the resource, including the further reading and some or all of the activities, to obtain a certificate for one hour of continuing professional development to include in your annual portfolio.

Aims and objectives

On completion of this resource you should have an understanding of:

  • Common respiratory symptoms that present in respiratory and non-respiratory disease
  • How the nature of the symptoms can aid correct diagnosis
  • The impact of respiratory symptoms on an individual’s quality of life
  • How the pattern of symptoms guide diagnosis and management
  • Symptoms that may indicate an immediate cause for concern

Reading List

British Thoracic Society Scottish Intercollegiate Guidelines Network British Guideline on the Management of Asthma, 2012

Department of Health. An outcomes strategy for Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) and Asthma in England, 2011

Voll-Aanerud M, et al. Respiratory symptoms in adults are related to impaired quality of life, regardless of asthma and COPD: results from the European community respiratory health survey, 2010. Available at

Further education and training

Signs and symptoms in asthma and COPD form part of all asthma and COPD diploma and degree level courses in addition to one day workshops provided by Education for Health. 

Asthma eLearning Degree Module 

COPD eLearning Degree Module 

Asthma eLearning Diploma Module 

Asthma eLearning Diploma Module (Stirling)

Asthma eLearning Diploma Module (London)

COPD eLearning Diploma Module

COPD eLearning Diploma Module (Stirling)

Essentials of Asthma Workshop

Essentials of COPD Workshop

Paediatric Asthma Workshop

Spirometry workshop

Date of preparation: February 2014

Review date: February 2015