Causes and Risk Factors of COPD

COPD is caused by a number of reasons - smoking, pollution, exposure to chemical fumes and toxic substances being the most common. Read on to know more about the risk factors of COPD.

What is COPD?


Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD) is a type of disease characterized by airflow limitation in the lungs. COPD includes emphysema, a condition defined by destruction and enlargement of the lung alveoli, chronic bronchitis, a condition characterized with chronic cough and phlegm; and small airways disease, a condition in which small bronchioles are narrowed. COPD is only present if chronic airflow obstruction occurs.


If you do not consult your doctor, address the cause or symptoms and get yourself treated at the earliest, the disease progression could get worse with time. According to the International Journal of Pulmonary and Respiratory Sciences, COPD is the second leading cause of mortality when it comes to non-communicable disease in India today.


Symptoms of COPD


COPD progresses gradually and shows signs at a much later stage. Quite often, early symptoms of COPD are neglected. It is often mistaken as shortness of breath or as a chronic cough. Other symptoms of COPD include the following -


  • Difficulty in breathing
  • Fatigue
  • Producing an excessive amount of phlegm
  • The bluish colouration of nail beds and lips (cyanosis)
  • Running out of breath while performing simple, daily chores (dyspnea)
  • Chest tightness


COPD Risk Factors


COPD is caused by a number of reasons - smoking, pollution, exposure to chemical fumes and toxic substances being the most common. Read on to know more about the risk factors of COPD.




Smoking is the most common cause of COPD. The National Commission on Macroeconomics and Health (NCMH) has identified India as one of the countries most affected by COPD. Cigarettes and other traditional forms of smoking such as chillum and hookah are very widely used in rural India.


In most cases, early symptoms like cough and respiratory distress are ignored as they are extremely common among co-smokers and hence are a cause of delayed diagnosis of COPD cases.




Inhaling a small number of irritants over a long period of time or inhaling large amounts of irritants over a short period of time can result in COPD. Exposure to airborne irritants in the workplace, indoor and outdoor air pollution can irritate the lungs and cause or worsen COPD.


Indoor air pollution is also a leading factor. It is caused by cooking food and heating homes by using natural fuels such as biomass. Burning these fuels over time, in a space that is not very well ventilated can cause lung irritation over time and lead to COPD. Biomass intake actively or passively is a leading cause of COPD among non-tobacco users in India.


High levels of outdoor air pollution, especially in urban areas, are known to be harmful to people with COPD. It can cause more frequent exacerbations.




While smoking is the primary cause of COPD, studies have suggested that genetics also contribute to COPD susceptibility. Wonder how?


People with Alpha-1 Antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency are susceptible to develop COPD with or without exposure to smoke. Mutations in the gene termed SERPNA1 causes AAT deficiency. The AAT protein is necessary for healthy lungs as it protects them from damage.


AAT deficiency is an inherited condition and is passed down the bloodline. To have AAT deficiency, a person has to inherit the gene from both parents.




COPD is more common in people older than 40 as it usually takes years of lung damage for the symptoms of COPD to show. It occurs most often in older adults and middle-aged people and not so common in young adults.


With growing age, the lungs may become increasingly susceptible to COPD.


Who has a high risk of developing COPD?


The following groups of people have a high risk of developing COPD –


  1. Smokers or former smokers who are older than 40 years of age
  2. Regular smokers who have asthma
  3. People exposed to workplace irritants over the years
  4. People exposed to indoor pollution over time


Prevention and Treatment


Smoking cessation is one of the most reliable ways to prevent the progression of COPD and help maintain the overall lung function.


It is imperative to get help from a physician as he/she would be the best guide and can be a critical part of your treatment.





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