What Causes COPD?

Over time, exposure to lung irritants like tobacco smoke or chemicals can damage your lungs and airways. This long-term exposure can cause chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which includes chronic bronchitis and emphysema. The leading cause of COPD is smoking, however 1 in 4 people living with COPD never smoked.

COPD Risk Factors

COPD is often referred to as a "smoker’s disease" however although smoking is one of the main risk factors for developing COPD, people who never smoke may also develop COPD. Other risk factors may include:

  • A history of childhood respiratory infections
  • Smoke exposure from coal or wood burning stove
  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • People with a history of asthma
  • People who have underdeveloped lungs  
  • Those who are age 40 and older as lung function declines as you age

While these causes and risk factors may increase your risk of developing COPD, people living in poverty and people living in rural areas are more likely to develop COPD. Beyond smoking status, some reasons for the increased risk of developing COPD may include exposures to indoor and outdoor pollutants, occupational exposures and lack of access to healthcare.

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Early Warning Signs of COPD

Don't delay talking to your healthcare provider about respiratory symptoms—early detection may improve your quality of life.
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Reduce Your Risk for COPD

If you are concerned about developing COPD, you can take steps to reduce your risk. 

  • Quit smoking for good by finding support, programs, and resources through the American Lung Association.  
  • Avoid secondhand smoke exposure.
  • Stay up to date with your COVID-19, flu, and pneumonia vaccinations. Vaccinations help protect you against respiratory viruses. 
  • If you are exposed to chemicals, dust and fumes through your workplace, use appropriate protective equipment and attend safety training. 

COPD is a progressive disease, and it can get worse overtime. If you have risk factors for COPD or are experiencing symptoms, do not wait to talk to your healthcare provider. The earlier you are diagnosed with COPD, the sooner treatment can begin.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: April 30, 2024

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