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Common Risk Factors for COPD

3 min read

By Rachel Despres

Medically Reviewed by Dr. Gerald Morris

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is the term used to describe a group of lung conditions (most commonly emphysema and chronic bronchitis) that cause increasing breathlessness over time.

COPD affects approximately 30 million people in the United States alone, and it is the third leading cause of death. As there is currently no known cure for the disease, it’s important to be mindful of the risk factors in order to do what you can to prevent it from developing. Here are the six most common risk factors for COPD.


Smoking is the primary risk factor for developing COPD. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, “Up to 75 percent of people who have COPD [currently] smoke or used to smoke.” WebMD adds that the risk of developing COPD “increases with both the amount of tobacco you smoke each day and the number of years you have smoked.”

Exposure to secondhand smoke is also a concern. Although it has not yet proven to lead to COPD, WebMD says “people who are exposed to secondhand smoke for a long time are more likely to have breathing problems and respiratory diseases.”

Indoor or Outdoor Air Pollution

When exposed to indoor or outdoor air pollution for prolonged periods of time, there is a greater risk of developing COPD. According to, indoor air pollution includes “particulate matter from the smoke of solid fuel used for cooking and heating,” such as that produced by burning biomass or coal.

The World Health Organization says this is particularly common in low-income countries such as those in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, where biomass and coal are used “as their main source of energy for cooking, heating, and other household needs.” Outdoor air pollution, on the other hand, is caused by combustion engines in vehicles and poses a concern for people worldwide.

Occupational Exposure to Dusts and Chemicals

The COPD Foundation says the disease can also affect those who’ve “had long-term contact with harmful pollutants in the workplace.” These pollutants can include certain chemicals, dust and gases, such as those coal miners, grain handlers, and metal molders are exposed to.

According to, a survey in the United States revealed that “the fraction of COPD attributed to work was estimated at 19.2-percent overall, and 31.1-percent among those who had never smoked.” To reduce this risk, WebMD suggests using safety equipment that limits the amount of dust and fumes that are inhaled.

Genetic Factors

Genetic factors may also play a role in a person’s likelihood of developing COPD, even if they have never smoked or been exposed to pollutants for prolonged periods of time. Alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD) is the most well-known of these genetic disorders, where the body lacks the necessary amount of the alpha-1 antitrypsin protein in the bloodstream.

According to the COPD Foundation, “without the alpha-1 antitrypsin protein, white blood cells begin to harm the lungs and lung deterioration occurs.” In the United States alone, AATD affects approximately 100,000 people, many of whom aren’t even aware they have the disorder.


As with many other health conditions, age increases the risk of developing COPD. Most commonly, people with the disease are at least 40-years-old when symptoms begin appearing.

The risk continues to increase the older a person is, especially if combined with other previously mentioned factors, such as smoking or long-term exposure to pollutants. In rare cases, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute says that people under age 40 may develop COPD if they have a predisposing health issue, such as AATD.

Other Factors

WebMD says that preterm babies also have a higher chance of developing COPD, as they “usually need to have long-term oxygen therapy because their lungs are not fully developed.” This therapy can “cause lung damage (neonatal chronic lung disease) that can increase the risk for COPD later in life.”

Although it’s not entirely clear why, having asthma is another risk factor for COPD, particularly if the person has smoked during their life.

MD, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine

Gerald Morris, MD is a family medicine/internal medicine physician with over 20 years expertise in the medical arena. Dr. Morris has spent time as a clinician, clinical research coordinator/manager, medical writer, and instructor. He is a proponent of patient education as a tool in the diagnosis and treatment of acute and chronic medical conditions.

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