Around 4,000 people in West Suffolk and more than 122,000 people in the East of England are thought to be living with undiagnosed heart or lung disease.
The shock figures, published on Monday to coincide with the launch of a new Public Health England campaign, aim to raise awareness of the seriousness of breathlessness and its importance as a sign of conditions like heart or lung disease.
The campaign is being supported by a new TV advert, which shows a young boy imitating his grandfather’s shortness of breath while mowing the lawn, to remind people to visit their doctor if they get out of breath doing everyday activities.
Dr Linda Pearce, respiratory consultant nurse at West Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust, said: “Struggling with everyday activities such as vacuuming or walking can be the first indicator that someone is living with breathlessness.
“Breathlessness doesn’t just involve difficulty breathing, but can involve more rapid breathing, or feeling like you are not getting enough air. This can be uncomfortable and worrying.
“If this is something that affects you, or you notice it affecting a friend or family member, speak to your GP as breathlessness could be a sign of heart or lung disease which, left untreated, could get much worse.”
Former sales and marketing manager John Nash was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) – an umbrella term for a number of lung diseases - 15 years ago.
The 65-year-old, from Chevington, was a heavy smoker but went to see his GP after experiencing abnormal breathlessness.
He said: “The news was a complete shock to me, I had no idea it was COPD causing my breathlessness. As you can imagine, it was very distressing to hear this as my breathlessness had been going on for some time.”
John still suffers from breathlessness but receives treatment to ease some of his discomfort.
“There is plenty of advice I would give to anyone suffering from shortness of breath, but the overriding message is always just see your GP as soon as possible. If you are a smoker, get help to quit as a matter of priority - it can make the world of difference,” said John.
Dr Daryl Freeman, GP principal Norfolk and East of England SCN clinical director, said many people put feeling short of breath down to ‘getting older, being unfit or overweight’ and stop doing the everyday activities when they find it most affects them, but it could be ‘a sign of something more serious’, like a lung or heart condition, which would benefit from prompt diagnosis.