A RESPIRATORY expert from Southampton has warned that the UK is sitting on a deadly lung disease “time bomb”.

The warning from Professor Luca Richeldi comes as cases of idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis (IPF), which is already responsible for 5,000 deaths a year, are increasing at a rate of 5,000 new cases every 12 months.

Now the consultant in respiratory medicine at Southampton General Hospital is re-launching a study he began in Italy in a bid to find new ways to speed up diagnosis - giving patients the best chance of survival.

The condition, which is part of a group of disorders known collectively as interstitial lung disease, causes inflammation and scarring of the lung tissue, leaving sufferers with a life expectancy of three to five years.

It often goes undiagnosed until the onset of symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing, which by that stage is treated with a drug that can only slow the progression of the disease.

More than a quarter of patients currently being treated at Southampton General Hospital's respiratory centre have some form of interstitial lung disease, with four to six new cases presenting every week.

Prof Richeldi said: “Nationally, the number of people suffering from IPF and other interstitial lung disease is increasing by thousands every year, but the cause is often unknown.

“As a result, the majority of patients are diagnosed late when their life expectancy has been cut extremely short.”

Prof Richeldi added that the rising numbers demonstrated there was an “urgent need” to develop a quick and simple way of diagnosing early IPF and has re-launched his study to discover if electronic stethoscopes - usually used to listen to the heart - can detect early signs of the disease.

He added: “We believe using electronic stethoscopes to identify distinctive sounds, which we already know are similar to ripped Velcro, could alert clinicians to people who might be developing the early stages of the disease.

“They could then be sent for chest high-resolution CT scan to confirm the diagnosis, ideally before they become symptomatic, and give us the opportunity to start an appropriate close monitoring programme and intervene before the condition has taken hold.”