One in five smokers suffers from a persistent cough, but three-quarters of those are unaware it could be an indication they are suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Despite the fact 30,000 people are killed by COPD each year in the UK, four in five smokers had not talked to their GP about their cough, according to a survey by the British Thoracic Society COPD Consortium.
The Mori survey consulted 866 adults aged 15 to 54 and found two thirds had not heard of COPD - often called the "hidden killer" because of a lack of awareness of the condition.
The British Thoracic Society (BTS) is re-launching a campaign to encourage people with worrying symptoms to see their GP.
Thousands of middle aged smokers could be experiencing the early warning symptoms of this debilitating disease
Dr Michael Rudolf, British Thoracic Society
Health professionals will also be helped to diagnose and manage COPD.
The BTS is encouraging GP surgeries to set up specialist clinics, and provide treatment services and support for people who want to stop smoking.
'Tip of the iceberg'
COPD covers smoking-related conditions such as chronic bronchitis and emphysema.
Ninety-five per cent of cases of COPD are caused by smoking.
In addition to a persistent "smoker's cough", the other three main warning symptoms of COPD are:
- breathlessness on mild exertion
- frequent coughs and colds in winter
- persistent production of phlegm.
There are about 600,000 cases of COPD diagnosed in the UK each year.
More than one in 25 people over 45, and one in 10 over-75s consult their GPs with COPD.
But doctors warn this could just be the "tip of the iceberg", because of the lack of awareness of symptoms.
Treating COPD costs the NHS about £500m each year.
Two thirds of smokers questioned by Mori had one or more possible COPD symptoms, but less than half had been to their GP.
Forty-five per cent said they had not been because they did not want to be told to stop smoking.
Three times the number who had heard of COPD had heard of asthma, even though COPD kills 20 times more people a year
And only 3% knew that the persistent production of phlegm could be a warning sign.
Dr Michael Rudolf, chairman of the BTS COPD Consortium, said: "These results confirm our fears that awareness and understanding of COPD is low - even though it causes a huge amount of suffering and kills over 30,000 people a year in UK.
"Thousands of middle aged smokers could be experiencing the early warning symptoms of this debilitating disease, but are not getting it checked it out.
"Early diagnosis and treatment can help halt disease progression, provide a real impetus for someone to quit smoking and make a difference to their future lung health."