November 18, 2015

Breathlessness Should Not Be Ignored

Feeling out of breath is not a normal symptom old age

To mark World COPD Day (18 November) Lung Foundation Australia is encouraging all Australians over the age of 35 to take breathlessness seriously and ask their health professional for a lung health check.

“Contrary to what people think, breathlessness is not a normal part of ageing.  Feeling out of breath is a symptom – a symptom not to be ignored,” said Professor Christine McDonald, Respiratory Physician at Austin Hospital.

“When we exercise it is normal to huff and puff and experience breathlessness. That feeling of being out of breath is temporary and, with rest, our breathing returns to normal.  If you are feeling breathless when doing simple activities like walking up a flight of stairs, it’s time to see your health professional because you could have COPD,” she said.

COPD or Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease is a progressive long term disease of the lungs which causes shortness of breath1.  

“People who unknowingly have COPD may mistake their symptoms as signs of ageing or lack of fitness – a simple lung function test called spirometry, can diagnose COPD,” said Professor McDonald.

Lung Foundation Australia estimates that approximately 1.45 million Australians have some form of COPD.2,3 This represents approximately one in seven Australians aged 40 and over.2

Of those with COPD currently, Lung Foundation Australia estimates that over 750,000 Australians2,3 have COPD that has progressed to a stage at which symptoms, such as breathlessness may already be present and affecting their daily lives. Half of these people do not have a doctor’s diagnosis of COPD and are therefore not taking the important steps to slow down the progression of the disease.4

In Australia, COPD is the fifth leading cause of death5.

Lung Foundation Australia CEO, Heather Allan said people who are 35 years or older and have a history of smoking or had occupational exposure to dust, gas and/or fumes and have a persistent cough with or without phlegm or are more breathless than others their age, should speak to their health professional for a lung health check.

“COPD is not curable but it is treatable if it is properly diagnosed.  That’s why identifying the early signs of COPD and acting early is important,” Mrs Allan said.

“We encourage people to take a minute to complete the Lung Foundation’s Lung Health Checklist on line at”



  1. Toelle B, Xuan W, Bird T, Abramson M, Atkinson D, Burton D, James A, Jenkins C, Johns D, Maquire G, Musk A, Walters E, Wood-Baker R, Hunter M, Graham B, Southwell P, Vollmer W, Buist A, Marks G. Respiratory symptoms and illness in older Australians: The Burden of Obstructive Lung Disease (BOLD) study. Med J Aust 2013; 198 (3): 144-148
  2. Toelle B, Xuan W, Bird T, Abramson M, Burton D, Hunter M, Johns D, Maguire G, Wood-Baker R, Marks G. COPD in the Australian burden of lung disease (BOLD) study.  Respirology 2011;16 (Suppl 1):12
  3. Based on ABS census data — CData Online 2006 Census, Australian population over 40.
  4. Xuan W, Toelle B, Bird T, Abramson M, Graham B, James A, Johns D, Maguire G,
    Wood-Baker R, Marks G. Prevalence of respiratory symptoms, illnesses and spirometric diagnoses in the Australian BOLD study. Respirology 2011; 16: 51.
  5. AIHW 2014