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What Causes COPD?

You're most likely to get COPD from breathing in something that irritates your lungs, like smoke, for a long time.  But there are other reasons, too, for this condition that makes you feel short of breath.

5 Common Causes of COPD

  1. Smoking. Cigarette smoke is by the far the most common reason people get COPD. You can also get it from tobacco products, like cigar and pipe smoke, especially if you breathe in the smoke. 
  2. Secondhand smoke. Even if you don't smoke yourself, you can get COPD from living with a smoker and breathing in smoke.
  3. Pollution and fumes. You can get COPD from air pollution. Breathing in chemical fumes, dust, or toxic substances at work can also cause it.
  4. Your genes. About 3 in 100 people with COPD have a defect in their DNA, the code that tells your body how to work properly. This defect is called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency or AAT deficiency. Your lungs don't have enough of a protein needed to protect them from damage. This can lead to severe COPD. If you or a family member had serious lung problems -- especially at a young age -- you're more likely to have AAT deficiency.  
  5. Asthma. It's not common, but asthma can lead to COPD. If you don't treat your asthma, over time you can get lifetime damage.

 

How Does COPD Affect Your Lungs?

Inside your lungs are tiny sacs called alveoli. They fill up like a balloon every time you take a breath. The oxygen in the alveoli passes into your bloodstream. Then your lungs push out stale air.

When you have COPD, your lungs don't work normally. Long-term irritation to the airways from smoke or other pollutants damages them for good.

When this happens, the walls between the alveoli break down. Your airways get swollen and clogged with mucus. It becomes harder to push out the stale air.  You don't get enough fresh oxygen with each breath.

In most cases, this process happens very slowly. The symptoms may come on over time. It may be years before you even notice them.

Lowering Your Risks

If you have COPD, you cannot heal the damage that has already happened in your lungs. But you can make changes to slow down the damage or stop it from getting worse.

  1. Don't smoke. This is the No. 1 way to prevent COPD or slow it down if you already have it. If you don't smoke, don't start. If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor, family, and friends to help.
  2. Avoid breathing in irritants. As much as possible, stay away from fumes, toxins, secondhand smoke, and dust.  
  3. Avoid colds, viruses, and infections. If you have COPD, even a common cold can lead to severe problems. During cold season, wash your hands well and often. Use hand sanitizer. Try to avoid people who are sick. 
  4. Get vaccines. Protect your lungs against the flu and pneumonia.
  5. Ask your doctor about being tested for AAT deficiency.  A blood test can find this inherited type of COPD. It's not common, but if you have serious lung symptoms with no clear cause (like smoking) your doctor may suggest testing. Or if you get emphysema before age 46, or have a family member with AAT deficiency. Medicines and lifestyle changes can keep you breathing easier if you do have it.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by James E. Gerace, MD on May 03, 2013

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