Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) makes up a group of lung disorders that cause blocked airways. The most common forms are chronic bronchitis and emphysema.

COPD is the third most common cause of death in the United States. Unlike other types of lung disease, COPD is most common in older adults. It’s a progressive illness that takes several years to develop. The longer you have certain risk factors for COPD, the more likely you are to develop the disease as an older adult.

COPD occurs most often in older adults and can also affect people in their middle ages. It is not common in younger adults.

When people are younger, their lungs are still in a generally healthy state. It takes several years for COPD to develop.

Most people are at least 40 years old when symptoms of COPD first appear. However, while rare, it’s not impossible to develop COPD as a young adult.

There are certain genetic conditions, such as alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency, that can predispose younger patients to developing COPD. If you develop symptoms of COPD at a very young age, typically under 40 years of age, your physician may screen for this condition.

The progression of the disease can vary slightly, so it’s more important to focus on possible COPD symptoms rather than solely on the age you might get it.

You should see your doctor if you exhibit any of the following symptoms of COPD:

  • breathing difficulties
  • shortness of breath during simple activities
  • inability to perform basic tasks due to shortness of breath
  • frequent coughing
  • coughing up mucus, especially in the mornings
  • wheezing
  • chest pain when trying to breathe

COPD is most common in current and former smokers. In fact, it is estimated that smoking accounts for 9 out of 10 COPD-related deaths. Smoking is bad for the entire body, but particularly harmful to the lungs.

Not only can it cause lung inflammation, but smoking also destroys the tiny air sacks in the lungs, called bronchioles. Smoking is also a great risk factor for lung cancer.

Once this damage is done, it cannot be reversed. By continuing to smoke, you will increase your risk of developing COPD. If you already have COPD, smoking increases the risk of premature death.

However, not all people with COPD are past or present smokers. It is estimated that 1 in 6 people with COPD has never smoked. In such cases, COPD may be attributed to other risk factors, including long-term exposure to other things that can irritate and harm the lungs. These include:

  • secondhand smoke
  • air pollution
  • chemicals
  • dust

No matter the exact cause of COPD, it typically takes high amounts of exposure for significant destruction in the lungs to develop.

This is why you might not realize the damage until it’s too late. Having asthma and being exposed to the things mentioned above can also increase the risk.

If you’re exposed to any of these irritants on a regular basis, it’s best to limit your exposure as much as you can.

COPD is most prevalent in older and middle-aged adults, but it is not a normal part of aging. If you think you have symptoms of COPD, you should seek treatment right away.

Prompt treatment can slow the progression of the disease and help prevent complications. Smoking cessation slows the progression of the disease as well. Talk to your doctor about getting help for smoking cessation.