Chronic Respiratory Diseases

Chronic respiratory diseases affect the airways and other parts of the lung. Some of the most common are asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, cystic fibrosis, sleep apnea, and occupational lung diseases. Respiratory diseases affect people of all ages – children, teens, adults and seniors. Many of these diseases are chronic in nature and all have a major impact not only on the individual with the disease, but on their family, community and the health care system.

Funded projects

From 2009-2012, the Lung Health Program (2009-2012) of the Public Health Agency of Canada provided funding to address specific needs identified in the National Lung Health Framework, a made-in-Canada action plan developed by and for stakeholders working to improve lung health.  Information on these projects can be found on the Lung Health Framework’s website.

Facts and figures


Fast facts about asthma: Data compiled from the 2011 Survey on Living with Chronic Diseases in Canada (PDF document), Public health Agency of Canada. Provides current information on how asthma affects Canadians.

Life and Breath: Respiratory disease in Canada (2007) reports that over 3 million Canadians are affected by one of five serious respiratory diseases – asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, tuberculosis (TB), and cystic fibrosis. Because data are not available for the prevalence of other respiratory conditions such as influenza, pneumonia, bronchiolitis, respiratory distress syndrome and sleep apnea, the total number affected by respiratory diseases is much higher.

  • In 2013, 2,363,010 of Canadians aged 12 or older reported that a health professional had diagnosed them with asthma. The prevalence of self-reported asthma is generally higher among women than men (Statistics Canada).
  • In 2013, 832,114 adults were living with COPD. While COPD was once more common in men than women, it is now being reported more often in women than in men (Statistics Canada). COPD has a high occurrence.
  • The number of people living with cystic fibrosis in 2011 was 3,913. While cystic fibrosis was once almost exclusively a disease found in children, most individuals with this disease are now living into their forties (Cystic Fibrosis Canada).


  • In 2014, an estimated 26,100 Canadians – 13,400 men and 12,700 women – will develop lung cancer. Lung cancer has become a major health issue for women. The incidence of lung cancer among women has shown a steady increase since 1987 while rates among men have decreased (Canadian Cancer Statistics (PDF document)).
  • In 2010, there were 1,577 new or re-treatment cases of tuberculosis (TB). While Canada’s overall TB rate is at an unprecedented national low, the rate of TB remains high in Aboriginal peoples and in persons that were born in countries where TB is widespread (Public Health Agency of Canada).


  • Respiratory diseases, including lung cancer, are a major cause of death in Canada (242,074 deaths in 2011) (Statistics Canada).
  • The three most common respiratory diseases-lung cancer (19,112 deaths), COPD (10,859), influenza and pneumonia (5,826)-were responsible for the deaths of 35,727 people in 2009 (Statistics Canada). Other major respiratory diseases also contribute to mortality in Canada, but in much smaller numbers, either because the case fatality rate is low (such as asthma, with 228 deaths) (Statistics Canada) or because the disease is uncommon (such as cystic fibrosis, with 45 deaths in 2011) (Cystic Fibrosis Canada (PDF document)).
  • Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death for both sexes. It is responsible for approximately equal proportions of all cancer deaths in both males and females (Canadian Cancer Statistics 2013 (PDF document)). Deaths due to influenza and pneumonia increase with age, for example in 2009 there were 605 deaths among people aged 45 to 65 compared to 2,979 deaths among people over 85 years of age.

Economic burden

  • Respiratory diseases exert a significant economic impact on the Canadian health care system. A recent analysis estimates that the three major lung diseases namely lung cancer, asthma and COPD, cost $12 billion in 2010, including $3.4 billion in direct health-care costs (drugs, hospitals, physicians) and $8.6 billion in indirect costs (such as premature death and long term disability) (Cost Risk Analysis for Chronic Lung Disease in Canada, 2012).
  • Only five health problems — cardiovascular, musculoskeletal, injuries, cancer and neuropsychiatric diseases — ranked higher than respiratory diseases in relation to accounting for a proportion of total health care costs.

Risk factors

For most people, the two most important risk factors for chronic respiratory diseases are tobacco smoke (through personal smoking and exposure to second-hand smoke) and air quality. Those who work in particular occupations are also at increased risk of respiratory diseases. Occupational respiratory diseases are caused by workplace exposure to irritating or toxic substances that may cause acute or chronic respiratory ailments.

People who smoke cigarettes increase their risk of developing lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. Exposure to second-hand smoke affects all Canadians, causing cancer in adult non-smokers, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) in newborns and worsening symptoms of those who already have respiratory diseases.

All Canadians are affected by the quality of air they breathe either inside or outdoors. However, the effects of exposure to poor air quality are more severe in those with respiratory diseases. People who have these diseases should refrain from smoking (or being exposed to second-hand smoke) and, as much as possible, ensure the quality of the air they breathe.

For more information on risk factors:

  • Chronic disease risk factors information on respiratory and other diseases from the Public Health Agency of Canada.
  • Tobacco web site includes information on second hand smoke and smoking cessation from Health Canada.
  • The Risk factor atlas from the Public Health Agency of Canada showing major chronic disease risk factors (with national trends over time, age-specific prevalence estimates, and maps of the prevalence of risk factors in health regions across the country) using data from the Statistics Canada Canadian Community Health Surveys (2005 and 2003).


Many respiratory diseases can be prevented. For most Canadians, primary prevention activities focus on preventing respiratory diseases before they occur through awareness and education on risk factors such as tobacco, tobacco control and measures to improve air quality. In addition, continued efforts to reduce exposures to hazards in the workplace are an important part of preventing occupational respiratory diseases.

For more information on prevention:







Health surveillance may be defined as the tracking and forecasting of any health event or health determinant through the continuous collection of high-quality data, the integration, analysis and interpretation of those data into surveillance products (e.g., reports, advisories, alerts, and warnings), and the dissemination of those surveillance products to those who need to know.

Sources of information for the surveillance of severe respiratory illness:

  • Data tables from Statistics Canada by subject: Diseases and health conditions, including respiratory diseases.
  • The report Life and Breath: Respiratory Disease in Canada (2007), by the Public Health Agency of Canada, provides the most recent data on chronic respiratory disease surveillance in Canada.
  • The Data Cubes, from the Public Health Agency of Canada’s Chronic Disease InfoBase are interactive databases that allow users to create tables and graphs in their Web browsers, as well as interactive maps showing recent statistics on priority chronic diseases and the prevalence of risk factors in Canada, as well as other non-communicable diseases.
  • Reports on respiratory diseases, drawn from the Statistics Canada databases.
  • The National Lung Health Framework’s Respiratory Health in Canada Mapping Tool, provides key statistics on lung health for each province and territory (depending on availability) in an easy-to-understand visual format.
  • Data from the Canadian Lung Association, including statistics on lung disease, air quality and tobacco use.




Tools and resources



  • Épidémiologie de la tuberculose au Québec de 2008 à 2011 (in French only). Ce rapport est une analyse descriptive des données de surveillance de la tuberculose. Il a pour objectif de permettre aux professionnels de la santé publique de mieux cibler leur programme de contrôle et de soutenir les médecins traitants dans la prise de décision médicale. Santé et Services sociaux du Québec (2014).

Systematic Reviews of the Research