Genetic factors may increase a person’s risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), but there are more significant risk factors, such as smoking. Many components play a role in the development of COPD, which means that there may be ways to prevent it or reduce the risk.

COPD is the term for a group of conditions affecting the lungs. These conditions are complex and cause damage and inflammation in the lungs and airways, leading to a range of health issues.

Some people are concerned that COPD may have a genetic component, but this is not what doctors first consider when they feel that a person is at risk.

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Some people may have a genetic link to COPD. A genetic condition called AAT (alpha-1 antitrypsin) deficiency may cause COPD.

The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute estimate that 100,000 Americans have AAT deficiency, which increases their risk of COPD.

A person with AAT deficiency is more likely to develop COPD even if they are a non-smoker, live in a clean area, and have no occupational risks.

Their likelihood of getting this disease may increase further if they smoke or breathe in polluted air.

Doctors do not generally need to test for AAT deficiency, so many people might never know that they have it.

The early signs and symptoms of AAT deficiency may include:

  • regular respiratory infections
  • a persistent cough
  • shortness of breath
  • wheezing
  • general fatigue

People with AAT deficiency may also experience symptoms of COPD earlier in life. It is possible for people to show noticeable signs of lung disease from as young as 20 years old.

Anyone who is worried that they may have AAT deficiency should ask their doctor about taking diagnostic tests, such as an AAT serum level test.

Although genetics may play a role in the development of COPD in some people, other factors contribute to the risk. The following factors increase a person’s risk of COPD, regardless of whether or not they have a genetic predisposition.


Smoking is the most significant risk factor for COPD.

According to the American Lung Association, between 85 and 90 percent of COPD cases result from smoking.

Smoking also increases the likelihood of COPD being fatal. Females who smoke are almost 13 times more likely to die from COPD than females who have never smoked, while male smokers are nearly 12 times more likely to die from COPD than non-smoking males.

Breathing in secondhand smoke is also a risk factor for COPD.

Environmental toxins

People who work in areas where there is a risk of breathing in toxic substances, such as factories, mines, or woodshops, may have a higher risk of developing COPD symptoms.

However, environmental toxins do not only come from a person’s work environment. Living in a big city or near a large, busy road may also increase the chances of respiratory issues leading to COPD.

Childhood illness

Some childhood illnesses can be a risk factor for COPD later in life.

People who experience frequent respiratory infections during their childhood may be more likely to get COPD as adults.

COPD can be fatal without treatment, but it may be preventable much of the time. People can do the following to reduce their risk of getting this condition:

Quit smoking

Smokers who have concerns about COPD should quit smoking as it is the primary cause of this disease.

Smoking is also a risk factor for many other diseases and disorders, so quitting can help people avoid many other health issues.

Avoid secondhand smoke

Avoiding sources of secondhand smoke is equally as important as quitting smoking.

To avoid breathing in secondhand smoke, people can make the home a smoke-free area, avoid bars and other venues that allow smoking indoors, and maintain their distance from people who are smoking.

Avoid other chemicals

Avoiding chemicals may help prevent damage to the lungs and airways.

People can avoid inhaling chemicals by:

  • keeping doors and windows open in the room when using harsh cleaning products
  • wearing a filter mask when lots of dust particles are present
  • changing occupations to avoid regular exposure to chemicals in the workplace

Avoid pollution

People should try to avoid air pollution as much as possible.

Keeping away from crowded streets, cities, or roads during periods of heavy traffic may help.

Some people who live in areas of high pollution may wish to consider moving as a way to limit the amount of polluted air that they breathe in.

It is possible for COPD to be hereditary.

However, a person will only have active AAT deficiency if both of their parents pass the defective gene to them. If only one parent passes the gene on, the individual will not have AAT deficiency but may still pass it on to their children.

Hereditary COPD is not nearly as common as COPD resulting from other causes. Smoking and other pollutants are the primary cause of COPD in the majority of cases.

Anyone with AAT deficiency should take care to reduce their exposure to other risk factors.

People who have AAT deficiency should talk to a doctor about ways to reduce their exposure to environmental toxins and air pollutants. They should also seek advice on quitting smoking if necessary.

COPD is usually treatable, especially with an early diagnosis. Medications and lifestyle changes may help treat symptoms or control the progression of the disease, even in cases of hereditary COPD.