What causes COPD?

Most cases of COPD are caused by inhaling pollutants; that includes tobacco smoking (cigarettes, pipes, cigars, etc.), and second-hand smoke.

Fumes, chemicals and dust found in many work environments are contributing factors for many individuals who develop COPD.

Genetics can also play a role in an individual’s development of COPD - even if the person has never smoked or has ever been exposed to strong lung irritants in the workplace.

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Most COPD is caused by breathing in unhealthy toxins or poisons. Smoking is the number one cause of COPD in the United States. Smokers inhale more than 4,000 chemicals. More than 40 of these cause cancer. When smoke enters the lungs, it causes irritation and inflammation. The body sends white blood cells to the area. The white blood cells release strong enzymes that destroy lung tissue. Normally, the body can protect itself against these enzymes. However, tobacco smoke can overwhelm these defenses, causing COPD.

COPD most often occurs in people 40 years of age and older who have a history of smoking. These may be individuals who are current or former smokers. While not everybody who smokes gets COPD, most of the individuals who have COPD have smoked. However, only one in five smokers will get significant COPD. Researchers are trying to find out why some smokers get COPD and others don’t. (learn more about the COPD PPRN research study.)

It is very important to quit smoking.

Stopping smoking can slow down the progression of COPD. It will also make your treatments more helpful. Within just a few weeks of stopping smoking, your breathing, coughing, and clogged sinuses can improve. Other benefits of quitting may include:

  • Decreased risk of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer
  • Less shortness of breath
  • More energy
  • Less coughing
  • Better liver function
  • Better digestion
  • Healthier air in your home and car
  • Less expense

To Stop Smoking, Make a Plan

  • Set a date to quit.
  • Remove all cigarettes from your home and car.
  • Make a plan with your health care provider to use nicotine gum, nicotine patch, or other medicines that help with cravings.
  • Exercise and eat right.
  • Reward yourself with the money you save from not buying cigarettes.
  • Get help and support: smokers’ quit lines, community and hospital sponsored programs, and quitters’ support groups. For more information and resources visit our page on quitting smoking.
  • Keep trying. Don’t give up!

Other Harmful Pollutants

COPD can also be caused by breathing in dusts, fumes, or chemicals over a long period of time. This usually occurs at work but can also happen at home.

Harmful materials at work may include ammonia (a-moan-yah), asbestos (az-best-us), carbon monoxide, dusts, and fumes. Toxins found at home can include dust, smoke, cleaners, spray products, mold, and bacteria.

Even if breathing these toxins did not cause your COPD, you should avoid them. Breathing in these harmful agents can make your COPD and breathing problems much worse. Avoiding these harmful materials is called reducing your risk.

Reducing your risks by avoiding harmful agents in your home:

  • Use pump sprays and roll-on deodorants. Do not use plug-in air fresheners.
  • Find less toxic, natural cleaners. Leave the home when cleaners or sprays are being used. Wear an N-95* respirator mask if you must use cleaners.
  • Avoid shaking out rugs, vacuuming, sweeping, and dusting. Have someone else do this cleaning if possible. Change filters in dryers, refrigerators, furnaces, and heating vents often.
  • Avoid using fireplaces.
  • Avoid using sponges or replace them often. Seal water leaks in the basement. Keep indoor humidity below 40 percent (use a humidity meter).

*An N-95 respirator mask is a mask that can filter out 95 percent of particles in the air if fitted and worn correctly.

Air pollution can affect everyone, but is especially bad for people with COPD. Plan to stay indoors on days when there is a high level of pollution. (Your local news station may report the pollution level with the weather forecast.) Keep your windows closed on these days. Also, avoid breathing in harmful fumes when traveling by car. You can do this by driving on less crowded roads and avoiding busy rush hour times.

Air Quality in Your Homeplus

The air you breathe can have a big impact on your health, and indoor air can sometimes be more polluted than outdoor air.

According to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, there are 3 major airborne threats in a home: allergens, irritants, and dangerous chemicals.

Allergens come from pollen, dust mites, and pets, and can cause your immune system to react.

Irritants won’t necessarily trigger your immune system, but can include compounds that can make breathing more difficult. Common indoor air irritants include chemicals used in painting, finishing, or staining furniture. Pesticides, tobacco smoke, and chemicals in cleaning products are irritants as well. Sometimes these chemicals have odors that you can detect but sometimes they don’t.

Take these steps to purify the air in your home:

  1. Ventilate your home by opening windows and running exhaust fans
  2. Do not allow smoking in your home
  3. Remove clutter (clutter collects dust!)
  4. Minimize dust mites by washing your bed linens weekly, lowering the humidity level, and keeping pets off your furniture
  5. Keep floors and carpets clean
  6. Install an air filtration system
  7. Have your air conditioner inspected regularly for mold and mildew in the duct work
  8. Reduce your exposure to household chemicals such as paints, varnishes, and cleaning products

Visit the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America for more tips on how to improve the air quality of your home.

It is possible to stay well, even if you have COPD, at any stage. Watch for early warning signs and don’t ignore them. Work with your health care team to avoid acute exacerbations!

A Genetic Link to COPD

A disease called alpha-1 antitrypsin (al-fa-one an-tee-trip-sin) deficiency (dee-fi-shin-see) is known to cause COPD. People with alpha-1 have a much lower-than-normal level of the blood protein called alpha-1-antitrypsin. This protein protects the lungs from irritation caused by breathing in toxins. Alpha-1 is a genetic (ja-net-ick) disorder. This means it is passed from parents to their children.

You can find out if you have alpha-1 through a simple blood test. Everyone with COPD should be tested for alpha-1. This is very important because there is a specific treatment for alpha-1 that can slow the progress of COPD. For more information on alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency, visit the Alpha-1 Foundation’s website at www.alpha1.org or call 1-877-2 CURE-A1.

It is believed that there are other genetic predispositions to developing COPD. Read about the COPDGene Study which is one of the largest studies to investigate the underlying genetic factors that contribute to the development of COPD in some smokers. COPDGene has identified several genes associated with the risk for COPD1 and these results have now been confirmed in collaboration with international research registries2.

COPD and Other Health Problems (Comorbidities)

Comorbid conditions seem to be more common in people with COPD than in people with other medical problems. These conditions may include:

  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Heart disease
  • Diabetes
  • Osteoporosis
  • Depression
  • Arthritis
  • Sleep Apnea
  • Cancer
  • Other medical problems

One reason for these additional problems may relate to the lung inflammation that occurs in people with COPD. People with COPD have inflammation in their lungs, as well as some inflammation in their blood. Many experts believe that this blood inflammation can cause some damage to the heart, muscles, and bones of people with COPD.

It is always important to talk with your health care provider about your COPD and any other health problems you may have. Then you can work together as a team for your best possible quality of life.

Learn more about getting tested and how COPD is diagnosed.

How is COPD Diagnosed?

Resources and Support

The COPD Foundation offers resources such as COPD360social, an online community where you can connect with patients, caregivers and health care providers and ask questions, share your experiences and receive and provide support.