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.


Smoking

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 (about 90% of them) 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 healthcare 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.

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.

Because not all individuals with COPD have Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency, and because some individuals with COPD have never smoked, it is believed that there are other genetic predispositions to developing COPD. Read about the COPDGene™ Study to learn about research to find other genetic causes of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.

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

No one really knows why it is so common for people with COPD to have other serious medical problems. One reason may be the medicines that people with COPD must take. All medicines have side effects and risks. This is especially true for COPD medicines such as corticosteroids.

Another reason for these additional problems relates to the lung inflammation that occurs 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 healthcare 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 healthcare providers and ask questions, share your experiences and receive and provide support. We also offer free, downloadable educational materials available through our downloads library.


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