COPD Risk Factors

copd risk factors - coupleCOPD is the third leading cause of death in this country behind only heart disease and stroke, yet many people don’t realize that in many cases, prevention of COPD is possible. Although smoking is the most common cause of COPD, there are a number of other important risk factors that increase your chances of being diagnosed.1

COPD Risk Factors: What Are They?

Though many people ask what causes COPD, there is not a single answer. Instead, there are a number of COPD risk factors that work together to cause this disease. It is becoming increasingly evident that risk for COPD is related to an interaction between genetics and long-term, cumulative exposure to environmental irritants. If you want to know what causes COPD in nonsmokers, take a look at the following risk factors for COPD, some of which may surprise you:


Whether you are tall or short, have blue eyes or brown, are thin or full-figured has little to do with what your parents wished for, but everything to do with genetics. However, your looks are not the only thing affected by your genes; genetics also play an important role in the development of many chronic diseases. So, is COPD genetic? While we can’t say that COPD is entirely caused by genetics, your risk factor for developing COPD can absolutely be genetic. The most easily recognized genetic risk factor for COPD is alpha-1 antitrypsin (AAT) deficiency.

AAT deficiency is passed on to a child at birth by one, or both, parents. It is caused by lack of AAT, a protective protein made by the liver. People who have AAT deficiency are at greater risk for developing liver and/or lung disease. If you have AAT deficiency, smoking dramatically increases your chances of developing COPD.1

Tobacco Smoke

Tobacco smoke remains the single most important risk factor for COPD, worldwide. If you are curious about what makes COPD worse, smoking is at the top of the list. In fact, as many as 73% of all deaths from COPD are related to cigarette smoking. The fact that not all smokers develop COPD tells us that the relationship between smoking and COPD death rates has a lot to do with genetics. However, the number of smokers who go on to develop COPD is steadily rising; recent reports suggest that as many as 50% of all smokers are diagnosed. Moreover, smoking during pregnancy is known to affect fetal growth and development and is thought to lead to increased COPD risk and the development of lung disease later in life.1 Prevention of COPD starts with avoiding smoking altogether.

Occupational Exposure

When it comes to what causes COPD, occupational exposure is another of the top COPD risk factors. It is estimated that in the United States alone, workplace exposure to dust, chemicals, vapors and fumes is attributed to 19.2% of COPD cases in smokers and 31.1% in never-smokers. These risks are assumed to be even greater in countries with less stringent work laws.1

Indoor and Outdoor Air Pollution

In certain parts of the world, biomass fuels such as coal, straw, wood and animal dung are commonly used for cooking and heating. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that, in countries where incomes fall between the low and middle range, 35% of people diagnosed with COPD developed it after being exposed to indoor smoke from biomass fuels. What’s more, 36% of all deaths from lower respiratory disease are associated with biomass exposure. A report in China found that the prevalence of COPD in never-smoking women who were exposed to biomass fuels in rural areas was up to three times higher compared to women in urban areas where biomass exposure was not a factor. Clearly, biomass fuels pose a significant COPD risk when used indoors, and could play a role in what causes COPD in nonsmokers.

Outdoor air pollution poses a much smaller risk than indoor air pollution in the development of COPD. In high income countries, only 1% of all COPD cases are associated with urban air pollution compared to 2% of lower income nations.1

Increased Age

The prevalence of COPD, as well as the risk of death and disability associated with COPD, increases with age. This is especially true in recent years because many people are living longer. Although many people remain healthy and vibrant throughout their lives, others are at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as COPD.1

Early Childhood Lung Infections

Severe lung infections in early childhood have been associated with decreased lung function and the development of COPD in later life. Furthermore, low birth weight may predispose a child to lung infections, which may also increase the risk of COPD.1


Although more research is needed to confirm a relationship between asthma and COPD, one study found that, after adjusting for smoking, adults with asthma were 12 times more likely to develop COPD than adults who didn’t have asthma.2 Another study found as many as 20% of people with asthma developed signs of COPD.2 If you have asthma, it could be helpful to consider that it may well be among the COPD risk factors.


Historically, COPD was found to be more prevalent in men. Since 2000, however, more women than men have died from COPD annually.3 This is largely attributed to the rise in women smokers over the years due, in part, to the increase in advertising that specifically targeted women. Additionally, there is some evidence to support that women are more susceptible to the damaging effects of tobacco smoke, thereby increasing their COPD risk, but this theory continues to be a matter of controversy.1

Socioeconomic Factors

Sadly, people who live in poverty have a higher risk of developing COPD, and complications associated with COPD, compared to people who are wealthier. This is often attributed to high smoking rates, poor nutritional status, overcrowding, exposure to pollutants (especially in the workplace), poor access to health care and early childhood respiratory infections.1

If you’re interested in what causes COPD, it is a good idea to be aware of the COPD risk factors, as well as understanding that it may be a combination of factors that ultimately leads to the development of COPD. Some people may wonder, “Is COPD contagious?” but the fact is that it is a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors that causes COPD. Be aware of your family history, do not smoke and avoid other COPD risk factors whenever possible to minimize your likelihood of getting COPD. If you currently smoke, quit as soon as possible, as smoking is the leading cause of COPD and COPD related deaths.

COPD Screening Tool

If you have symptoms of COPD, such as shortness of breath, cough and sputum production, and a history of exposure to risk factors, please take a moment to participate in this5 Question COPD Risk-Screen brought to you by the COPD foundation. Be sure to print out your results and take them to your doctor.

How Inogen Can Help COPD

Knowing your COPD risk factors and understanding what causes COPD are extremely helpful in avoiding the disease, but once you have developed COPD, it cannot be cured. However, there are a number of successful COPD treatments that can help improve the quality of life for those living with COPD. Inogen can help.

If you or a loved one have COPD, oxygen therapy can help you breathe easier and alleviate some of your symptoms. Inogen’s portable oxygen concentrators make oxygen therapy work with your life. Our Inogen One oxygen concentrator’s are lightweight, easy-to-use and designed to go where you go. Inogen believes that oxygen therapy should improve your life, not impede it, so our Inogen One System help provide oxygen therapy for use at home or away. Our small concentrators travel easily and purify air continuously from the atmosphere, providing oxygen-rich air without the need for refills or unwieldy oxygen tanks. The Inogen One is powered with a rechargeable battery or any AC or DC source, and offers surprising energy efficiency, using about as much power as a 40-watt light bulb. It is also one of the quietest oxygen devices available—so quiet, in fact, that most people don’t notice that the Inogen One is on. Because of its small, portable design and easy operation, the Inogen One allows you to continue using your oxygen therapy while you go about your life, providing you with the independence, mobility and freedom you want. With our portable oxygen concentrator systems, you get oxygen anytime, anywhere.

If you’re experiencing COPD symptoms, talk to your doctor about how oxygen therapy with the Inogen One can help you. Discover how Inogen can help you treat your COPD symptoms while you continue to live a full and active life.

1 David M. Mannino, A. Sonia Buist. Global burden of COPD: risk factors, prevalence, and future trends. The Lancet. 2007; 370:765-73.

2 Silva GE, Sherrill DL, Guerra S, Barbee RA. Asthma as a risk factor for COPD in a longitudinal study. Chest. 2004 Jul;126(1):59-65.

3 Cote, C.G., Chapman, K.R. Diagnosis and treatment considerations for women with COPD. March, 2009.Image Credit: Flickr, Senior Couple in Swimming Pool, moodboard.

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