4 Preventable Causes of COPD

Causes of COPD That Are Preventable

Did you know that there are four common causes of COPD that are totally preventable? Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, refers to a broad classification of disorders that includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and bronchiectasis. An irreversible condition, hallmark symptoms of COPD include difficulty breathing with any type of exertion and a reduction in airflow going in or coming out of the lungs.

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COPD is insidious; it adopts a slow, progressive course that usually becomes symptomatic during the middle adult years and increases in severity with age. Once considered a "man's disease," since 2000, women have been as likely to die from COPD each year as men. 

Although there is a definite genetic component to the disease, COPD is believed to be mainly caused by cigarette smoking. Additional risk factors that contribute to its development include secondhand smoke, air pollution, and occupational exposure.

It is important to note that while we cannot change our family history, we do have some control over our environment. Included below are four causes of COPD that can be prevented through lifestyle changes which will ultimately reduce the chances of you developing the disease.

Cigarette Smoking

The most significant risk factor for developing COPD is cigarette smoking. The American Lung Association estimates that 80% to 90% of those diagnosed are chronic smokers. The amount an individual smokes as well as how long they have been smoking can increase the probability of developing the disease and intensify its severity. Risk factors are not only prevalent in those who smoke regular cigarettes, but with pipe and cigar smokers as well.


Tips to Help You Quit Smoking

To reduce the probability of being diagnosed with COPD, you must quit smoking altogether. Many programs are available today that can assist individuals with smoking cessation, as well as stop smoking aids that can help curb cravings. See your doctor for more information.

As of Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

Secondhand Smoke

Secondhand smoke remains a major risk factor in the development of many diseases, including COPD. According to the American Lung Association, secondhand smoke causes an estimated 50,000 deaths each year, primarily from lung cancer and heart disease. The Surgeon General concludes that there are no risk-free levels of secondhand exposure.

If you smoke, it is important that you are aware of the danger associated with secondhand smoke. It is especially damaging to children. The best thing that you can do for someone you love is to not light up in front of them. By taking responsibility for your own behavior, you could help save a life.

Air Pollution

Research continues to show an obvious link between poor air quality and COPD. In fact, because poor air quality, for many of us, is an everyday occurrence, never has it been more important to be conscious of our environment and how we play a part in the role of air pollution.

The American Lung Association has used the latest research in an effort to ensure that laws are in place to protect the public health of citizens nationwide. While this recognition has led to an overall improvement in public policy over the last 5 decades, an increase in the amount of motor vehicle traffic in recent years has led to an influx of newer pollutants in the air, such as ozone and fine-particulate air pollution. Numerous epidemiological studies now show a link between these newer air pollutants and exacerbation of airway diseases such as COPD. With this in mind, improved risk assessment for those susceptible to airway disease becomes essential for health care workers and environmentalists alike.

Occupational Exposure

According to CHEST (2002), "workplace exposures to coal mine dust, cotton dust, silica and grain dust are known causes of occupational COPD." Additionally, they report, "exposure to isocyanates, natural rubber latex, animal dander, platinum salts and a host of other occupational agents have been shown to initiate or aggravate asthma." As economic costs of occupational exposure annually run into the billions, greater emphasis needs to be placed on ensuring safer workplace environments for employees. Stricter laws are paramount for businesses to survive.

Workplace safety starts with the employer. Employees who work in high-risk areas should be provided personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, aprons, or full-body coverings. Businesses who fail to provide protective gear should be reported. It is every employee's responsibility to be their own health and safety advocate.

The Bottom Line

The American Lung Association reports that in 2011, 12.7 million Americans were estimated to have COPD. To date, it has surpassed stroke to become the third-leading cause of death in this country. Statistics such as these make it extremely important to identify risk factors associated with COPD and seek early ​treatment if symptoms arise. Because most people are not diagnosed until they are in their late 50s, a decline in health can occur rapidly by this time. Recognizing risk factors and advocating lifestyle changes is the best way to maintain optimal health and prevent this devastating, life-threatening illness.

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  1. Thun MJ, Carter BD, Feskanich D, et al. 50-year trends in smoking-related mortality in the United States. N Engl J Med. 2013;368(4):351‐364. doi:10.1056/NEJMsa1211127

Additional Reading
  • American Lung Association. COPD Fact Sheet. Updated 2013.
  • American Lung Association. Secondhand Smoke Fact Sheet. Updated 2013.
  • Leigh, Paul J., Ph.D., Romano, Patrick S. MD, MPH, Schenker, Marc B, MD, MPH and Kreiss, Kathleen, MD. "Costs of Occupational COPD and Asthma". CHEST 2002 121:264-272.
  • Smeltzer, Suzanne C. & Bare, Brenda, G. (1996). Brunnuer and Suddarth's Testbook of Medical-Surgical Nursing (8th Edition). Pennsylvania, PA: Lipponcott-Raven Publishers.