It’s a disease two million of us live with – and we estimate that one million more Canadians may have it without their knowledge.

So, what makes chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) the most common chronic illness nobody’s breathing a word about?

When blogger and advocate Barbara Moore was diagnosed with the disease in 2015, she found herself with a lot to learn and fast. “I had very little knowledge of COPD or how serious it was when I started on my journey, which created challenges when it came to being diagnosed and getting on the right treatment.”

Moore isn’t alone. New national research from the Ontario Lung Association found that 65 per cent of COPD patients studied had been experiencing symptoms for a year or more, but only 44 per cent knew what COPD was.

Not just one disease

Typically diagnosed in older adults, COPD is a group of lung diseases that make it difficult – very difficult – to move air in and out of the lungs. Chronic bronchitis causes the airways to become swollen and filled with mucus, while emphysema causes damage to the air sacs in the lungs. People with COPD can live with both conditions. Both are bad news for breathing.

COPD is Canada’s number one cause of hospitalization, and there is currently no cure. Since it worsens over time, spotting the symptoms early is critical. If aging vibrantly is your goal, it’s time to listen to your lungs.

Breathlessness does not fall into the same category as laugh lines

COPD symptoms tend to start slowly over time. You may experience a wheezy whistle from the lungs as you climb up the stairs, or an unfamiliar shortness of breath (dyspnea) while working out. In others, COPD symptoms may look more like a knack for coughing up phlegm, a pesky and persistent cough, or unrelentingly frequent colds and respiratory infections that long outstay their welcome.

Shortness of breath and other COPD symptoms should neverbe dismissed as part and parcel of healthy aging.

Stigma stings

Many things can cause COPD, but it’s estimated that between 80 to 90 per cent of COPD cases are a result of tobacco use. Unfortunately, your COPD risk is elevated whether you still light up or you went smoke-free decades ago. If you have ever dismissed your symptoms as “smoker’s cough,” it’s time to get checked out for COPD.

Regardless of your smoking history, you deserve to breathe your best.

Mind the (diagnosis) gap

Spirometry is a simple, quick, and painless diagnostic test that measures how well your lungs are working. It’s known as the “gold standard” for accurate and repeatable measurement of lung function. In non-medical terms, it’s a slam dunk.

Unfortunately, this simple breathing test isn’t being performed as often as it should. The Ontario Lung Association’s Helping the Missing Million study found that among patients experiencing symptoms, only 44 per cent will have a spirometry test to investigate further.

Stand up for your lungs. Ask your healthcare provider about having a spirometry test.

Quitting smoking is good for your lungs at any age and reduces the risk of COPD, which may be treated with inhalers and anti-inflammatory medications or antibiotics.

Living your best life with COPD

While COPD cannot be cured, it can be treated at every stage to improve your symptoms, keep you active and maintain your quality of life. Treatment plans could include inhalers, anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics to treat certain infections, or the use of supplemental oxygen if the oxygen level in your blood gets too low. Pulmonary rehabilitation, which includes supervised exercise, is another powerful tool that can be used to manage COPD and keep you active.

Outside of medication, quitting smoking is the best thing you can do for your lungs if you have COPD. Your health care provider can help you find a quit method that’s right for you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help.

Like many chronic illnesses, the earlier the COPD is caught, the better. That’s why the Ontario Lung Association recommends all older adults look out for the symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.