One quick test gives me an instant snapshot of my lungs

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Cystic Fibrosis is a condition that requires intensive self-management. But now a new device can help make the lives of people who have the disorder that much easier.

by Adrian Monti

It’s small enough to fit comfortably into the palm of Alex’s hand – but brings him a huge amount of reassurance.

Alex lives with cystic fibrosis (CF), a genetic disorder that causes chronic breathing and digestive system difficulties. To manage it successfully, he needs to be aware of every subtle change in his body.

He uses the latest form of a medical device called a spirometer to give him deep insight into his health. A spirometer tests the lung function of people who have CF and other serious respiratory conditions.

‘This spirometer gives me much more control,’ says 27-year-old Alex. ‘One quick test by blowing into it will give me an instant snapshot of how my lungs are coping. I’ll know whether they’re fine or if there’s something I need to be concerned about so I can take some action.’

Alex, who is under the care of London’s Royal Brompton Hospital, has had the Air Smart spirometer that was developed by Swedish digital health start-up company NuvoAir for 15 months.

The Air Smart device is connected to a smartphone via a lead and an app is downloaded. The user simply breathes into a detachable mouthpiece which slots into the main body of the spirometer. After a few seconds, an analysis of how well the lungs are performing appears on the device’s screen.

Having such crucial data has certainly changed how he manages his own condition.

‘Before having a spirometer I had no real idea of how my lungs were doing between my hospital check-up appointments,’ explains Alex, who is an external business advisor.

‘I wouldn’t always suffer any obvious symptoms to show me if anything was wrong.

‘One time, when I was 19 and having a gap year before university, I went for a routine hospital check-up. My consultant told me my lung function measurement had dropped by 20 per cent, which was a huge fall for me as my lungs were only 70 per cent effective anyway.’

But if left unchecked this would cause further damage to his already weakened lungs.

‘This came as a big shock to me because apart from being a little bit more out of breath if I played football, I didn’t have any symptoms to indicate my lungs had become worse,’ says Alex. ‘I actually felt perfectly fine.’

Alex says when his worsening lung function was discovered, he was given a course of intravenous antibiotics and steroids. For eight months he went back and forth from hospital, sometimes as an in-patient, while his lung function was stabilised. It then improved and was gradually brought back towards its previous level.

Alex admits it was a difficult time. His consultants were not sure why his lungs had deteriorated so badly.

‘Luckily my lungs stabilised by the time I started at university in the autumn of 2010 which took away a lot of anxiety,’ says Alex, who was diagnosed with CF soon after he was born. ‘But it made me realise I needed to be more on top of my condition. In the past, when it was less of an issue as it was more stable, it had been more secondary in my mind.’

Alex says he bought a very expensive spirometer online so he could begin monitoring his lungs himself.

‘I didn’t want to go to another appointment and suddenly discover my lungs had got worse,’ says Alex. ‘By doing regular self-checks, I would know what my lung function was before my hospital appointment.’

He liked being able to analyse his health this way. And when he discovered the Air Smart that was launched by Nuvo Air in 2016, he was keen to switch to it. It was smaller, not so bulky and much less expensive than the one he’d been using.

‘The Air Smart’s very discreet and I can quickly test my lungs whenever I want and see the results straight away,’ says Alex. ‘This gives me a proper sense that I’m controlling the CF rather than the other way round.

‘Any changes in my lung function are tracked so an overall picture is being drawn of what they are doing. It means if there is something that’s of concern, it’s spotted much earlier, before it becomes more serious.

‘If I see my lung function is not as good as it was the week before, I can consider why this might be and take some positive steps. For example, I might look at what I’ve been eating, whether I’ve been doing enough exercise or getting enough rest and sleep.”

In the past he would only discover there was a problem much further down the line. This could lead to a hospital visit or time as an in-patient stay while receiving treatment.

But Alex says he has discovered the Air Smart is a useful tool in not only identifying when his lungs are becoming problematic, but when they are improving too.

‘I now look at the data about my lungs, and if they are very stable, ask myself why this is,’ says Alex ‘I look at diet and lifestyle and consider what positive impact that is having. For example, I recently went out for dinner and discovered that the garlic in my meal seemed to help my lungs. I did some research and found a study that backed this up this belief. I then went out and bought a supplement containing garlic’s active ingredient, allicin which so far this has helped.

‘But I only went down that path of finding out about garlic because of the information my spirometer showed me.’

Alex usually uses his spirometer once a week, but on a daily basis if he notices deterioration or is testing out a lifestyle change. Along with taking with medicines and carrying out special breathing techniques twice a day to loosen the mucus blocking his airways, it’s part of the daily management he follows to keep well.

‘The Air Smart gives me a developing picture of my lungs that’s a million times better than before I had a spirometer,’ he says. ‘It shows me what’s happening to my lungs now. By knowing that, I can plan ahead and get on with my normal life.’