The third leading cause of death in the United States is a disease that many of us have never even heard of, and its symptoms are often mistaken for a normal part of the aging process. While 16 million Americans have been diagnosed, healthcare experts believe that half of the people across the country who currently suffer from this disease are undiagnosed and don’t know they have it.

A worsening problem

It is the third leading cause of death in the United States, and is the only disease in the top five leading causes of death with increasing mortality rates. Approximately one in five Americans over the age of 45 are suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

COPD is an umbrella term used to describe progressive lung diseases, encompassing emphysema, chronic bronchitis, refractory asthma, and severe bronchiectasis. The disease is characterized by increasing breathlessness, chronic coughing, chest tightness, and wheezing. Many people mistake their symptoms as a normal part of aging

While smoking and tobacco use are prime factors, other contributing risks include fumes, chemicals and dust found in work environments, and genetics can play a role, even if a person has never smoked or been exposed to harmful lung irritants.

Early detection is crucial in treating COPD before major loss of lung function occurs.

Getting a diagnosis

Over the past year, nearly 60,000 people with COPD were hospitalized or had an emergency room visit, and most of the ER visits could have been prevented with early diagnoses, proper treatment and disease management plans.

That’s why it is so important that more people know about this disease. For that reason, November is National COPD Awareness Month. The COPD Foundation, a patient-led non-profit organization, was established to speed innovations and to improve the lives of patients with COPD and related disorders through research and education.

If you or anyone you know suffers from any symptoms of COPD, it is important to talk to a doctor immediately for testing. To identify your risk, take the COPD Foundation’s Five-question Risk Screener and talk to your doctor about taking a simple breathing test called spirometry. Early detection is crucial in treating COPD before major loss of lung function occurs. There is also no better time to quit smoking and using tobacco or to help a friend, colleague or loved one get the help they need to quit smoking.

Increasing quality of life

Leaving symptoms misdiagnosed, untreated or undertreated may cause them to worsen faster than if they were treated with proper medication and therapy. Many adults are incorrectly diagnosed with asthma. Providing a proper diagnosis means individuals will receive the right treatments and follow up monitoring. There’s no cure yet for COPD but treatments are available to help individuals live better.

It is important that we work together to help those who are currently living with the disease and to prevent others from becoming statistics. Through education and prevention, we can change the course for those on the path to suffering from the difficult effects of COPD. If you are living with COPD and would like to connect with a respiratory expert or others like you, please visit COPD360social.org.