Is COPD Hereditary?

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a lung disorder that usually develops due to nonhereditary risk factors, such as smoking. It is also linked to a heritable genetic disorder, alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AAT deficiency). However, although people diagnosed with COPD are tested for this condition, it is rare to develop the disease in this way.

COPD causes the inflammation and thickening of lung tissue. Less oxygen gets into your body, making it difficult to breathe. Types of COPD include chronic bronchitis or emphysema. People diagnosed with COPD usually have symptoms of both.

This article will discuss how a hereditary condition can increase your risk of COPD, other risk factors such as smoking, and what you can do to reduce your risk.

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Hereditary Risk for COPD

COPD usually develops due to irritant exposure or other noninheritable risk factors, so it is not considered a hereditary disease. However, an inherited mutation in a gene that makes a protein, alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT), can cause COPD. This condition is called AAT deficiency.

The Global Initiative for Chronic Obstructive Lung Disease (GOLD) guidelines recommend that even though AAT deficiency is rare, all people with COPD should be tested for it. A blood test checks for levels of AAT, and a genetic blood test may follow to confirm the condition.

The liver makes AAT proteins. These proteins are released into your blood to protect your tissues from the inflammation caused by an infection.

With an AAT mutation, your liver cannot release enough of these proteins into the blood. For some people, no proteins are released at all. Your lungs and other organs are not protected and become damaged. This is how COPD can develop. In addition, because AAT proteins build up in the liver, it can cause liver damage.

AAT deficiency is rare. About 1 in 3,500 people in the United States have it. But it is underdiagnosed, which can cause a delay in care. If you have persistent lung or liver problems, ask your doctor to test for the mutation. In people with AAT deficiency, signs of lung disease start to appear between the ages of 30 and 40.

Hereditary vs. Genetic

The terms "hereditary" and "genetic" do not have the same meaning.

"Genetic" refers to bodily functions or characteristics controlled by genes. Changes in the genes may be either inherited from your genetic parents, or you may acquire a new change in your genes. Unless this change is in the reproductive cells that produce ova or sperm, it won't be passed to your children.

A trait is hereditary when it is passed down from parent to child. Traits can include the color of your eyes or a mutation that causes a health condition, like ATT deficiency.

Smoking

Smoking is the highest risk factor for developing COPD. Cigarette smoke damages the air sacs, airways, and lining of your lungs. It also hinders lung development in children. 

Both smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke are triggers for COPD exacerbations, or flare-ups (when symptoms worsen). One in 4 Americans with COPD never smoked cigarettes themselves. However, 8 out of 10 deaths from COPD are related to smoking.

In people with AAT deficiency who smoke, signs of COPD appear 10 years earlier than in those who don't smoke.

Other Risk Factors

In addition to smoking, exposure to secondhand smoke, and AAT deficiency, there are other risk factors for COPD. They include:

  • Air pollution
  • Having a job in which you are exposed to chemicals, dust, and fumes
  • History of childhood lung infections
  • Asthma

Prevention

You can reduce your risks of COPD by avoiding its major risk factors.

Quit Smoking

The best way to prevent COPD is to quit smoking. If you don’t smoke, do not start the habit. However, it can be challenging to quit smoking. But there are many programs and products to help you stop. The first step is to talk to your healthcare provider about your options.

Avoid Secondhand Smoke

If you do not smoke yourself or are trying to quit, do everything you can to stay away from secondhand smoke. This can include:

  • Make your home a smoke-free environment.
  • Learn about your rights to a smoke-free environment at work and in public spaces.
  • Help make the air in your local community healthy.

Avoid Chemicals

It will be hard to eliminate exposure if your job involves working directly with hazardous chemicals. But there are still steps you can take to limit exposure. They are:

  • Dispose of waste properly.
  • Immediately report any water leaks.
  • Know and follow safe handling procedures for hazardous materials.
  • Always wear the correct protective equipment if you must handle dangerous materials.

Recap

Quitting smoking is the most significant difference you can make in preventing COPD. Talk with your healthcare provider about the programs and products that are best for you. Avoid secondhand smoke by making your home smoke free and knowing your rights to a smoke-free work environment. At work, handle any hazardous materials properly, and wear the appropriate protective equipment at all times.

When to See a Doctor

How do you know you might have COPD? It may be challenging to recognize because symptoms are sometimes mild. Older adults may assume that getting tired from everyday activities is just another part of aging. But shortness of breath can be a major symptom of lung disease.

See your healthcare provider if you have:

In addition, when you have COPD, you need to be on the lookout for signs of infection. They include:

  • Increased coughing or shortness of breath
  • Coughing up growing amounts of mucus (yellow or green)
  • Chills or fever of over 101 degrees
  • Increased fatigue
  • Headaches or sinus congestion/tenderness

If you have any of these symptoms, call your healthcare provider.

Summary

Although COPD usually develops due to smoking or other nonhereditary risk factors, alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency, an inherited gene mutation, can increase your risk of developing COPD.

AAT proteins are made in your liver and protect your organs from inflammation when your body gets an infection. The gene mutation that causes AAT deficiency prevents your liver from releasing these proteins. During an infection, your lungs and other organs are unprotected and become damaged.

Additional risk factors for COPD include smoking, secondhand smoke, air pollution, exposure to chemicals, and a history of lung infections. If you smoke, quitting can significantly reduce your COPD risk. If your job involves handling chemicals, always wear the proper protective gear while doing so.

A Word From Verywell

Having any condition that impacts your breathing can be overwhelming. While COPD has no cure, it can be managed. Your healthcare provider will help you create a treatment plan that works for you and make any adjustments as needed.

The most substantial risk factor for COPD is smoking. When you quit smoking, you can experience a considerable improvement in lung health and lessen COPD exacerbations. Remember to eat a healthy diet, get regular exercise, and avoid COPD triggers.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What are the four stages of COPD?

    The four stages of COPD are mild (stage 1), moderate to severe (stages 2 and 3), and very severe (stage 4). For many people, COPD will become progressively worse. In some, this can happen quickly. But other people may experience a slower decline.

  • What is the life expectancy of someone with COPD?

    Research shows that life expectancy for patients with COPD is lower than for those who do not have COPD, especially if they smoke.

    The best data come from analyzing the large National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES III). It reveals that people with stage 1 or 2 COPD lose a few more years of life expectancy than people without lung disease, in addition to any years they will lose due to smoking. In people with stage 3 or 4 COPD who continue to smoke, 10 years of life expectancy are lost.

  • How much do you have to smoke to get COPD?

    The longer you smoke, the more likely you will experience frequent coughing that produces mucus, shortness of breath, and the development of COPD.

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