Could it be COPD?

When it comes to lung health, conditions like asthma and lung cancer seem to get all the attention. However, cases of COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) are on the rise — especially among baby boomers — and so are hospital visits and hospitalization rates due to the disease.

COPD is preventable and treatable — especially when it’s detected early. So what crucial information are we missing?

What is COPD?

If you’re not familiar with the term COPD, chances are you have heard of heard of the diseases that now fall under its umbrella: emphysema and chronic bronchitis. COPD is a chronic lung disease that slowly damages the airways and sacs in the lungs — making it difficult to breath and often causing a chronic cough with mucus production. COPD gets worse over time, and can have a big impact on the quality of life for people who have it. It’s a leading cause of disability, and can even be fatal.

Currently, over 772,200 Canadians have been formally diagnosed with COPD, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC). That’s about 4 per cent of people age 35 and over. However, that number could be much higher as experts believe many people aren’t aware they have the disease.

COPD takes a toll on people’s quality of life. The 2009-10 Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) found that disease affects people’s daily activities, social life and careers. Some people reported cutting back their hours due to their breathing problems, while others reported difficulties with things many of us take for granted — such as getting dressed or running errands. One third of people living with COPD reported it affected their ability to get regular exercise, and one in five people reported the disease affected their sleep.

The fact that the disease remains under-diagnosed in Canada is a concern. Experts are calling for better education and more aggressive screening, especially for people who are at higher risk of developing the disease. There is no cure for COPD, but early diagnosis means a better chance for slowing the disease’s progression and effectively managing its symptoms. Experts continue to warn that people who are at-risk should be tested.

The risks and warning signs

As is the case with many lung conditions, past and present smokers are at the highest risk. In fact, smoking cigarettes is the culprit in 80 – 90 per cent of cases of COPD. Even people who never smoked may be at risk: other possible causes include having many chest infections as a child, a rare genetic disorder called Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency and occupational exposure to dusts (i.e. if you inhaled grain or coal dust at work).

The best things you can do to prevent the disease are to not smoke (and quit if you currently do) and avoid second hand smoke. However, you’re still at risk even if you stopped smoking years ago. Lung damage can start early, even if symptoms don’t appear until your fifties.


The symptoms of COPD include:

– shortness of breath
– wheezing
– coughing up phlegm
– fatigue
– unexplained weight loss
– getting frequent chest infections like colds and the flu.

The Canadian Lung Association notes that the earliest signs often show up when people are in their 40s, 50s and 60s, so people may mistakenly attribute these symptoms to the aging process. However, experts stress that difficulty breathing isn’t normal at any age — and should be investigated.

Questions to ask

Are you or someone you care for at risk? To help people better understand the signs, the Lung Association developed the online Canadian Lung Health Test. The short questionnaire asks the following questions:*

– Do you cough regularly?

– Do you cough up phlegm regularly?

– Do even simple chores make you short of breath?

– Do you wheeze when you exert yourself, or at night?

– Do you get frequent colds that persist longer than those of other people you know?

(* Taken from the online test located here.)

If you answer yes to any of the questions, it’s time to talk to a medical professional.

A word of caution: make sure you get a simple breathing test known as a spirometry test if you’re seeing a doctor about breathing symptoms. (It won’t hurt — it involves blowing into a tube attached to a machine.) Some research indicates that asthma is over-diagnosed in Canada, and a misdiagnosis could be masking a more serious condition. Experts say a spirometry test should be used in conjunction with a physical examination and medical history to make an accurate diagnoses. Your doctor may order a chest x-ray and blood tests too.

Remember, COPD might not be the cause, but any symptoms affecting your breathing deserves investigation nonetheless.

Want to know more about COPD? Here’s where to look for more information:

– The Canadian Lung Association website has information about lung disease, but you can find specifics on its COPD webpage. You can download materials available about COPD through the Breathworks campaign. Alternatively, you can call their free hotline at 1-866-717-COPD (2673).

– The Public Health Agency of Canada’s section on Chronic Respiratory Diseases.

The Asthma Society of Canada.

Article updated November 2012 with recent data and links.

Photo © Nick Free

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