magine being out of breath after doing the simplest of tasks, or having a chronic cough with mucus that just won’t go away. This is the reality for the three million Canadians with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Yet most don’t even know they have the disease because they haven’t been diagnosed.

COPD is mainly caused from exposure to noxious particles, such as cigarette smoke or harmful air in some workplaces. In Canada, it primarily affects older adults. “It is concerning that many people with COPD aren’t diagnosed,” says Dr. Alan Kaplan, a family physician who specializes in the disease. “Many people minimize the illness by saying they just have a smoker’s cough, or that they’re getting older and aren’t as active. But it’s important that people seek treatment.”

Blowing away misunderstandings

Kaplan says COPD is a mystery to many people and even some physicians, who aren’t aware of how to diagnose and treat the disease. COPD can have a huge impact on one’s work and social life. “If the disease is ignored, and diagnosed late, it is more difficult to treat,” says Kaplan. “Without treatment, the disease will continue to damage your lungs, as well as put you at risk for other conditions, including heart disease and premature death.”

The loss of one’s lung function is not recoverable. And while a little loss of lung function won’t impact your life, a significant amount will. That’s why treatment is so critical. 

Treatment can give you your life back

Medications that help to open the airways in the lungs are typically prescribed, usually in the form of an inhaler. “There are a lot of new and innovative devices that have come to market, but patient education is critical to ensure they are being used properly,” says Kaplan. “Patients need to be comfortable with their inhaler, or they might not be adherent. Even worse, they may not be getting their full dose. Having the right device and knowing how to use it are just as important as the medication in it.” According to a recent industry-led survey by Leger Marketing, 60 percent of Canadians reported experiencing challenges with their inhalers.

There are three basic types of inhalers for those with COPD: dry powder, metered-dose, and a newer type called soft mist. While each has positive attributes, Kaplan says the soft mist inhaler is most forgiving, because a soft plume of medication is given. Other devices can be challenging for some people, because they require the patient to either inhale vigorously, or very slowly. The soft-mist inhaler was designed to address these challenges, and is engineered so that large amounts of the medication can reach the lungs. This means patients can feel confident that they are receiving consistent and reliable doses.

How do you know if the medication is working?

“This is a question that patients often have,” says Kaplan. “I ask them if they are feeling better and if they are more active. If they aren’t, then they should see their doctor or pharmacist to ensure they are taking their medications properly.” Some inhalers require a bit of technique for the therapy to be administered effectively, which is why patient education is so important. Equally critical is the need for the right dose and the right medication. Patients should choose health care providers with whom they feel comfortable having these conversations, to ensure that their treatments are successful.