The number of adults with chronic breathing problems in Northern Ireland is expected to rise to 40,000 by the end of the decade, it has been claimed.
But greater focus on prevention to reduce risk factors and promote healthier lifestyles will help moderate the increase, according to the Institute of Public Health in Ireland.
New research suggests that by 2020 the number of adults in Northern Ireland with diagnosed chronic breathing problems - it is known as chronic airflow obstruction (CAO) - is expected to increase to 40,000 from 33,000 last year.
It is a lung condition which interferes with normal breathing and includes conditions such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
IPH Research Analyst Mr Steve Barron said the large numbers of adults living with diagnosed CAO, and the expected increase by 2020 had significant implications for the individuals concerned, their families, as well as the health and social care system and Northern Ireland's economy.
The implications he warned, could be even greater than the figures suggested because they did not include people with undiagnosed CAO and therefore it was likely to be an underestimation of the true number of adults with CAO.
The research was conducted by the Institute in collaboration with the Centre of Excellence for Public Health Northern Ireland at Queen's University, Belfast, and HRB Centre for Diet and Health Research at University College Cork. It was based on the 2005/06 Northern Ireland Health and Social Wellbeing Survey.
President of the Irish Thoracic Society, Dr Edward McKone, said: "Many people have symptoms of lung disease and do not seek medical advice. It is important to realise that symptoms such as breathlessness, cough and wheeze are not normal and if present should warrant a visit to your GP."
Tobacco and smoking was the primary cause of CAO. The expected increases assumed that risk factors - like cigarette smoking and air pollution - did not change over time.
Mr Barron added "If CAO risk factors get worse, the expected increase in the number of adults with diagnosed CAO will be even greater. That's why there needs to be a greater focus on prevention to reduce these risk factors. Healthier lifestyles and environments will help to moderate the projected increases."