Do you need a breathing test?

It’s terrifying when you or someone you know can’t breathe. However, experts warn we often overlook the subtler signs of lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Many people live with symptoms like wheezing, shortness of breath, frequent chest infections, coughing and fatigue — sometimes passing them off as allergies or dismissing them as “growing old”.

However, like the brain, heart and other vital organs, it’s important to know what’s going on with the lungs. Lung disease can have a significant impact on people’s quality of life, but the right treatment can help – especially when issues are found early. One test can help doctors diagnose lung disease — no pains, needles or bodily fluids required.

Ever heard of spirometry? This simple test involved blowing into a special tube attached to a machine — a spirometer — that measures how much air you can blow out of your lungs (a measure of volume) and how fast you can blow it out (rate). Spirometry is the go-to test for diagnosing asthma and COPD, but it can also help assess the current condition of your lungs and help find the source of symptoms like shortness of breath.

You may have heard it called by its other names: pulmonary function test (PFT) or lung function test. From now until the end of November, the Canadian Lung Association is encouraging Canadians take this crucial test as part of its 10,000 Breaths campaign.

“Our target is to motivate 10,000 Canadians to have their lungs tested. Across Canada, we are hosting free breathing tests from October 14 until the end of November,” says Heather Borquez, CEO and president of the Canadian Lung Association, in a recent press release. “If you or someone you love is having difficulty breathing or experiencing shortness of breath, get tested. Ask your doctor for a simple breathing test called spirometry.”

“Spirometry is one of the most effective ways to test your lungs for COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease; the new name for chronic bronchitis and emphysema) and asthma. It is a painless test that takes only a few minutes,” says Dr. Allan Coates, a medical spokesperson for the Canadian Lung Association on pulmonary function and a pediatric respirologist at Hospital for Sick Children. “The earlier the test is performed, the earlier the lung disease can be detected and treated.”

(Read the press release.)

Who should get the test?

Unlike blood pressure checks and blood tests, spirometry isn’t necessary for everyone. The Lung Association encourages you to talk to your doctor about the test if:

You’re over age 40 and you smoke or used to smoke. The risk for COPD increases with age, and smokers are at an even higher risk.

You experience symptoms involving your lungs like frequent coughing, phlegm or shortness of breath (when walking quickly or performing other physical activities).

You’re worried about your lung health. Smoking isn’t the only risk, though it is responsible for about 80-90 per cent of cases, says the Public Health Agency of Canada. Exposure to second hand smoke and pollutants can also play a role — as can certain genetic deficiencies.

You are being treated for lung disease. Spirometry can help measure the effectiveness of your treatment.

Where can you get the test? As always, talk to your doctor if you have concerns or are experiencing symptoms. Lung issues shouldn’t be ignored.

Prefer to skip the appointment? Until the end of November, The Lung Association is holding free clinics all across Canada — no doctor’s referral required.

To learn more about spirometry or to find a local spirometry clinic, visit or call 1-866-717-COPD (2673). (You can find a clinic near you using the Lung Association’s search tool.)

For more information about lung disease, see our previous articles on asthma and COPD.