COPD: Am I at risk?

According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), chronic lower respiratory disease, mainly chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), is the third leading cause of death in the United States. This disease kills about 3 million people worldwide each year. Nearly 16 million people in the United States are hospitalized each year because of COPD.

COPD develops slowly and usually worsens over time. In the early stages, someone with COPD may not experience any symptoms. Early prevention and treatment can help prevent serious lung damage, respiratory problems, and even heart failure.

The first step is to recognize your personal risk factors for developing this disease.

Learn more: COPD symptoms »

The main risk factor for COPD is smoking. It causes up to 90 percent of COPD deaths, according to the American Lung Association (ALA). People who smoke are 13 times more likely to die from COPD than those who never smoked.

Long-term exposure to tobacco smoke is dangerous. The longer you smoke and the more packs you smoke, the greater your risk is of developing the disease. Pipe smokers and cigar smokers are also at risk.

Exposure to secondhand smoke also increases your risk. Secondhand smoke includes both the smoke from burning tobacco and smoke exhaled by the person smoking.

Smoking is the principal risk factor for COPD, but it isn’t the only one. Indoor and outdoor pollutants can cause the condition when exposure is intense or prolonged. Indoor air pollution includes particulate matter from the smoke of solid fuel used for cooking and heating. Examples include poorly ventilated wood stoves, burning biomass or coal, or cooking with fire.

Exposure to environmental pollution is another risk factor. Indoor air quality plays a role in the progression of COPD in developing countries. But urban air pollution like traffic and combustion-related pollution poses a greater health risk worldwide.

Long-term exposure to industrial dust, chemicals, and gases can irritate and inflame the airways and lungs. This increases your risk of developing COPD. People exposed to dust and chemical vapors, such as coal miners, grain handlers, and metal molders, have a greater likelihood of developing COPD. One survey in the United States found 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.

In rare cases, genetic factors cause people who have never smoked or had long-term particulate exposure to develop COPD. The genetic disorder results in a lack of the protein alpha 1 (α1) –antitrypsin (AAT).

An estimated 100,000 Americans have AAT deficiency. But few people are aware of it. While AAT deficiency is the only well-identified genetic risk factor for COPD, researchers suspect that there are several other genes involved in the disease process.

COPD is most common in people at least 40 years of age who have a history of smoking. Incidence increases with age. There is nothing you can do about your age, but you can take steps to stay healthy. If you have risk factors for COPD, it’s important to discuss them with your doctor.

Talk with your doctor about COPD if you are over the age of 45, have family members with the disease, or are a current or former smoker. Early detection of COPD is the key to successful treatment. Quitting smoking as soon as possible is also essential.


How do doctors diagnose COPD?

Anonymous patient


If a doctor suspects a person has COPD, he or she can use several tests to diagnose COPD. The doctor may look at chest radiography to look for signs of COPD such as hyperinflation of the lungs or other signs that could resemble emphysema. One of the most useful tests doctors can use to diagnose COPD is a pulmonary function test such a spirometry. A doctor can evaluate a person’s ability to inhale and exhale properly with the spirometry which will determine if a person has COPD and the severity of the disease.

Alana Biggers, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.
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