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.

Top Three Causes and Risk Factors for Developing 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 if you haven’t! Quitting smoking helps slow the disease. It makes treatment more effective.

Environmental Factors

COPD can also occur in those who have had long term exposure and contact with harmful pollutants in the workplace. Some of these harmful lung irritants include certain chemicals, dust, or fumes. Heavy or long-term contact with secondhand smoke or other lung irritants in the home, such as organic cooking fuel, may also cause COPD. Individuals who have worked for many years around these irritants are at risk for developing mild COPD.

Genetic Factors

Even if an individual has never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for an extended period of time, they can still develop COPD. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin Deficiency (AATD) is the most commonly known genetic risk factor for emphysema2. Alpha-1 Antitrypsin related COPD is caused by a deficiency of the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein in the bloodstream. Without the Alpha-1 Antitrypsin protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs and lung deterioration occurs. The World Health Organization and the American Thoracic Society recommends that every individual diagnosed with COPD be tested for Alpha-1. For more information about AATD and how to get tested, visit the Alpha-1 Foundation Website or call 1-877-2 CURE-A1.

Because not all individuals with COPD have AATD, 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.

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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