Can non-smokers develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)?
02/05/2020 // Darnel Fernandez // Views

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) refers to a group of conditions that can block airflow and cause a wide variety of breathing-related problems, including emphysema and bronchitis. They cause the body to create more mucus and trigger inflammation, which can cause parts of the lungs to become significantly less elastic and damages the air sac. According to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI), approximately 16 million American adults are diagnosed with COPD in the US, with many more who might not even be aware that they have the disease. While most would think that COPD is a smoker's disease, there are certain non-cigarette risk factors that can trigger the disease even in non-smokers.

A non-smoker's nightmare

While it is true that smoking cigarettes is a primary risk factor for COPD, not all smokers actually develop the disease, and some COPD patients have not smoked a day in their life. In fact, data from the NHLBI show that only 75 percent of COPD patients are smokers or former smokers. This leaves a whopping 25 percent of the patients as non-smokers. The following are potential risk factors that can trigger the development of COPD in non-smokers.

Long-term pollutant exposure

Pollutants found both indoors and outdoors can cause COPD in people who have never smoked a cigarette. According to a study published in the Indian Journal of Medical Research, indoor air pollution is the primary suspect for a lot of COPD cases. Other pollutants include toxic fumes, dust, industrial fumes and secondhand cigarette smoke.



Genetics can also play a role in whether you develop COPD or not. There is a chance that a person would inherit a condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or just alpha-1. This refers to people with two abnormal genes inherited from their parents. According to the Alpha-1 Foundation, only 100,000 Americans have this condition in the US, with similar numbers shown in Europe. If you do have alpha-1 and it causes lung disease, it is called genetic COPD. Symptoms include shortness of breath, repeated chest infections, wheezing and frequent cough that produces mucus.

Other respiratory conditions

People with chronic asthma experience a higher risk of developing COPD, especially if they have difficulties in managing their condition effectively. In addition, people who have had severe respiratory problems when they were kids can also have a much higher risk of developing COPD compared to other people. Because of the scarring nature of tuberculosis, developing this disease can also increase your risk of COPD.

Sex and age

A study published in the journal Thorax compared the COPD cases of 5,176 adults, aged 40 years and older, who were smokers and non-smokers alike. They found that non-smokers made up 47 percent of the study cohort, 10 percent of which had COPD. The study also revealed that, in non-smokers, COPD affected 7.4 percent of women compared to the five percent of men. There were similar COPD case discrepancies in men and women smokers.

In addition, biomass fuel exposure – referring to 10 years or more exposure from using wood, coal or manure-burning indoor fire as a source of heating or cooking – affected women much more than men.

With all that said, you can lower your risk of COPD or even prevent it by simply never smoking cigarettes, as well as avoiding secondhand smoke. For smokers, putting down that cancer stick is the right course of action. In addition, you should use protective clothing and even face mask when you must pass through an area filled with pollutants to minimize the effects.

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