Risk Factors for Developing COPD

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COPD symptoms can go unrecognized for years, which is why understanding COPD risk factors are so important. COPD is the third leading cause of death in the United States, but early recognition of symptoms can lead to earlier diagnosis and treatment. Being aware of the following risk factors for COPD may increase your awareness and lead you to question your own possible symptoms.


Smoking is by far, the most common risk factor for COPD. Although not everyone who gets COPD is a smoker, 80 percent to 90 percent of all people who are diagnosed are either current or former smokers.

The number of cigarettes you smoke each day and the length of time that you have smoked also plays an important role in a COPD diagnosis. Smoking cigarettes are not the only thing that places you at risk for COPD: Pipe and cigar smoking, long-term exposure to secondhand smoke and smoking marijuana and cigarettes together all increase your risk.

The single most effective action that you can take if you are a current smoker is to quit. In fact, in many cases, smoking cessation can normalize lung function decline that is associated with COPD.

If you are a smoker who has not yet been diagnosed with the disease, quitting can prevent or delay the development of airflow limitation, one of the primary characteristics of COPD. It can also increase your likelihood of survival.

If you've made a decision to quit, you are going to need some support. Check out the complete guide to smoking cessation and a list of stop smoking aids before you make the leap.


Another important risk factor for COPD is the environment in which you work and live. In the United States alone, occupational exposure to dust and fumes is attributed to up to 19 percent of COPD in smokers, and up to 31 percent of COPD in nonsmokers.

The cumulative exposure to indoor and outdoor air pollution is also relevant, to some degree, to a COPD diagnosis. Exposure to biomass fuels during cooking, especially among women, is of particular importance. Be aware of what you're exposed to at work and at home, and take measures, such as monitoring air quality when you're at home and wearing protective gear if you work in a hazardous workplace.


More and more, genes are being recognized as having an important role in the development of COPD. This relationship is most commonly seen in a severe, genetic deficiency of alpha-1-anti-trypsin (AAT), a protective protein made by the liver. People with AAT deficiency are at greater risk for developing emphysema. Smoking greatly increases this risk. AAT deficiency is most common among people of Northern European descent. If you have AAT deficiency, it is extremely important that you either never start smoking or quit as soon as possible.


Asthma may be a significant risk factor for COPD, however, further investigation is needed to confirm this relationship. Researchers have looked at the relationship between asthma and COPD, finding that adults with asthma have a 12 times higher risk of developing COPD over time than those who don't have asthma (after adjusting for smoking.) Another study found that 20 percent of patients with asthma developed functional signs of COPD. Manage your asthma to protect yourself from developing COPD, and talk to your doctor about your risks.

Childhood Lung Infections

Severe viral and bacterial lung infections in early childhood have been associated with reduced lung function and increased respiratory symptoms in adulthood, which may also contribute to the development of COPD. Low birthweight is thought to increase susceptibility to lung infections, which may also be related to COPD.

Oxidative Stress

When the balance between oxidants and antioxidants in your body shifts in the direction of oxidants, oxidative stress can occur. Oxidative stress in COPD is related to smoking and causes inflammation of the airways and destruction of the alveoli, sacks in the lungs that help transport oxygen and carbon dioxide between blood and the lungs.​

Less Common Risk Factors For COPD

There are several other possible risk factors for COPD, that are far less understood, but, worth mentioning:

  • Reduced maximal attained lung function: Caused by processes during gestation, birth or early childhood
  • Gender: Since 2000, COPD affects more women than men, suggesting that women are more susceptible to the negative effects of tobacco smoke than men.
  • Socioeconomic status: There is evidence that the development of COPD is related to socioeconomic status. The lower the socioeconomic status, the higher the risk of developing COPD.
  • Nutrition: Malnutrition and weight loss can reduce respiratory muscle strength and endurance. An association between starvation and the development of emphysema has been suggested in experimental studies on animals.

A COPD diagnosis can only be determined by your health care provider, however, you can assess your risk for the disease by using the COPD Self-Assessment Tool. Once you've answered the questions in the self-assessment tool, print out the form and take it to your healthcare provider for further evaluation of your symptoms.

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Article Sources

  • Global Initiative for Obstructive Lung Disease. Global Strategy for the Diagnosis, Management, and Prevention of COPD. Updated 2010.
  • Silva GE, Sherrill DL, Guerra S, Barbee RA. Asthma as a risk factor for COPD in a longitudinal study. Chest. 2004 Jul;126(1):59-65.