Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) isn’t contagious. But people with COPD can transmit other infections when they cough. They may also have a greater risk of serious illness from a respiratory infection.

COPD is a group of chronic lung conditions that can make breathing harder. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that it affects about 16 million people in the United States.

COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Both can lead to coughing, wheezing, shortness of breath, and congestion.

Germs don’t cause COPD, so one person can’t transmit COPD to another. Still, people with COPD may need to take preventive steps against getting or transmitting other respiratory infections.

Lots of coughing can transmit other infections, and COPD can put them at risk of serious complications if they get an infection.

Here’s what to know about COPD causes and risk factors and how to keep yourself and people with COPD as healthy as possible.

Long-term exposure to air that contains lung irritants is the leading cause of COPD.

In the United States, cigarette smoke is the most common lung irritant. About 75% of people who develop COPD smoke or used to smoke.

Other lung irritants that may contribute to COPD include:

Many people with COPD have emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or both.

Emphysema causes damage to the air sacs in your lungs and the walls between them. It can make your lungs less elastic, making it harder to breathe.

You develop chronic bronchitis when your airways experience consistent irritation and inflammation. That causes them to make more mucus. They can also swell, leading to more coughing and difficulty breathing.

Long-term smoking is the leading risk factor for COPD. In a 2018 study, current and former smokers with COPD smoked an average of 24.3 cigarettes per day for 36.4 years. While smoking for any duration can harm your lungs, smoking many cigarettes for a long time greatly increases your risk of COPD.

Still, the American Lung Association notes that 1 in 4 people with COPD have never smoked. Other risk factors for COPD include:

  • genetics
  • asthma
  • age over 40 years
  • exposure to secondhand smoke or smoke from coal or a wood-burning stove

Many COPD cases are preventable. Consider avoiding the following to reduce your risk:

  • smoking
  • secondhand smoke
  • pollutants
  • other lung irritants like chemical dust and fumes

These are also helpful ways for people with COPD to slow disease progression.

While COPD isn’t transmissible by coughing, people with COPD can still transmit another infection that spreads through coughing, like the cold or flu.

People with COPD may also have a higher risk of complications from infectious lung diseases, so protecting against them is important.

Consider the following tips to help stay healthy and avoid passing on infections:

  • Cover coughs and sneezes.
  • Consider getting the vaccines your doctor recommends.
  • Stay home when you don’t feel well.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Disinfect frequently touched surfaces in your home.

Here are answers to some questions about COPD and whether it’s contagious.

Is chronic bronchitis contagious?

Acute (short-term) bronchitis (a chest cold) can be contagious because a virus or bacteria causes it.

Chronic bronchitis isn’t contagious because germs aren’t the cause. It develops over time due to environmental factors like cigarette smoking and pollutants.

Is COPD curable?

There’s currently no cure for COPD. However, you can manage your symptoms and slow disease progression with treatments such as medication, pulmonary rehabilitation, and surgery if needed.

What is the life expectancy of someone with COPD?

A 2020 study that followed people with COPD for 10 years found the following loss of life expectancy based on the COPD stage:

  • Severe stage: loss of 8–9 years
  • Moderate stage: loss of 6 years
  • Mild stage: no loss of life expectancy

Still, it’s important to know that life expectancy can differ for everyone. How long you can live with COPD depends on the severity of your symptoms and the stage of the condition. With early, effective treatment, you can live for many years after a COPD diagnosis.

Is COPD hereditary?

While COPD isn’t typically hereditary, you may inherit a protein deficiency called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency (AATD). People with AATD may have a higher risk of COPD and other lung diseases.

One person can’t transmit COPD to another. But COPD can cause someone to cough a lot, increasing their risk of transmitting other infections like the cold and flu.

People with COPD may also have a higher risk of complications from respiratory infections. Taking protective steps, such as covering coughs and sneezes, washing your hands frequently, and sanitizing commonly touched surfaces, can help reduce the risk of infections.