1 out of 4 people ignores COPD symptoms

copdAbout 1 out of 4 people with symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) hasn’t talked to a doctor about those symptoms, according to an online survey released by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI).

COPD—which includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis—is a lung disease that makes breathing increasingly difficult over time. Symptoms like shortness of breath, chronic coughing or wheezing often come on slowly. Early diagnosis and treatment can help slow its progression, but many people don’t seek help until the disease is advanced, noted the NHLBI.

“A good conversation between patients and providers about COPD can make a real difference for disease sufferers. It’s no secret that early diagnosis and treatment can improve daily living for those who have COPD—but you can’t get there without an open line of dialogue in the exam room,” said James Kiley, PhD, director of NHLBI’s Division of Lung Diseases.

In 2010, COPD surpassed stroke to become the third leading cause of death nationwide, according to the NHLBI, which estimates that half of the 24 million Americans living with COPD remain undiagnosed.

“COPD is the only major chronic disease where deaths are not decreasing,” said Dr. Kiley. “It is critical for people to understand whether they may be at risk and recognize their symptoms as early as possible.”

About the survey

The NHLBI analyzed the results of the annual HealthStyles survey, which this year involved a nationally representative sample of 4,494 adults ages 18 and older.

Among the findings:

  • More than a third of all people surveyed had never heard of COPD, a number that hasn’t changed much over the last few years.
  • 26 percent of current smokers had never heard of COPD, compared to 21 percent in 2012 and 16 percent in 2011. Since smoking is the leading cause of COPD, that’s a troubling drop in awareness among those most vulnerable to the disease, noted the NHLBI.
  • 46 percent of young (age 45 or less) current smokers had never heard of COPD. In 2011, only 28 percent of smokers in this age group were unaware of COPD.
  • 17 percent of current smokers had been diagnosed with COPD, compared to 10 percent in 2012. So while fewer smokers are aware of the disease, more are being diagnosed with it.
  • 11 percent of all people surveyed had symptoms of COPD. Of these people, 26 percent had not mentioned their symptoms to a doctor. Among the reasons given for not seeing a doctor: cost (27 percent); “didn’t think of it” (27 percent); symptoms had been around “for years” (20 percent); and “don’t want to hear another ‘quit smoking’ message” (16 percent).
The take-home message
A large number of people who may have COPD aren’t getting treatment that could help them breathe more easily and enjoy a better quality of life now and in the future.An added—and related—finding is that the number of current smokers who have never heard of COPD is increasing.

Anyone who has symptoms of COPD (listed above) should discuss them with a doctor as soon as possible. You can learn more about COPD and how it can be treated here.


Memorial offers a support group called the Better Breathers Club for those suffering from COPD.

Second Wednesday of each month 1-2:30 pm in Memorial’s Center for Rehab & Wellness (406 S. 30th Ave-Upstairs from the Heart Center)

For information, contact Better Breathers Clinic (509) 576-7654

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