Alayne Ronnenberg, ScD
A risk factor is something that increases your chance of getting a disease or condition.
It is possible to develop COPD with or without the risk factors listed below. However, the more risk factors you have, the greater your likelihood of developing COPD. If you have a number of risk factors, ask your healthcare provider what you can do to reduce your risk.
Risk factors include:
The most important risk factor for COPD is cigarette smoking. Almost all COPD cases are caused by cigarette smoking. However, not all smokers develop COPD. Factors in your environment or genetic make-up also contribute to the development of COPD.
Smoking more "exotic" forms of tobacco, such as Chinese waterpipes, are can be even more harmful. In some cases, these can increase your risk more than traditional cigarettes.
Research suggests that people who are chronically exposed to secondhand smoke (in any form) may have an increased risk of developing COPD.
COPD usually develops in older persons with a long history of cigarette smoking. However, one form of emphysema has a genetic component. It runs in families. It is also more common in people of northern European descent. People with this form of COPD have a hereditary deficiency of a blood component. It is known as alpha-1-protease inhibitor (alpha-1-antitrypsin [AAT]). People with this defect can develop COPD at an earlier age. If you have close relatives who developed COPD in their 30s or 40s, your risk of this type of COPD may be elevated. A deficiency of AAT can be detected with blood tests.
You are more likely to develop COPD as you get older. This is partly related to the number of cigarettes smoked and the number of years as a smoker.
A history of frequent childhood lung infections increases your risk of developing COPD.
COPD is much more common in men than in women. However, this may be largely related to the higher rate of smoking among men. As the number of women who have significant smoking histories has increased, the number of COPD-related deaths in women has also risen.
Chronic exposure to dust, gases, chemicals, and biomass fuels increases your risk of developing COPD. These include smoke from burning wood, charcoal, and crop residue. Exposure to these can also worsen symptoms of the disease.
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Last reviewed February 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
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