Air purifiers may help relieve symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). They are not a replacement for other COPD treatments. However, emerging research suggests they may improve the environment by removing smoke and other pollutants.

In 2022, researchers found that portable indoor air filters could improve symptoms in former smokers with COPD. Other research has found that indoor air pollution is a risk factor for COPD symptoms and death.

Read on to learn more about how air purifiers may help manage COPD.

Black and white image of a person turning on an air purifierShare on Pinterest
RgStudio/Getty Images

Indoor air pollution may not be visible, but it includes tiny particles. These particles can irritate the lungs and may exacerbate allergies. Emerging research suggests they may also intensify symptoms of COPD.

Air purifiers work by filtering the air in a room, using a fan or other technology to pull air through the filter. The filter traps tiny particles, removing them from the air and reducing exposure to indoor air pollution.

Types of air purifiers

Air purifiers use a variety of technologies to clean the air.

Ozone-generating air cleaners

These air cleaners intentionally generate ozone. Ozone creates a chemical reaction that cleans the air. However, ozone itself can be harmful, especially for people with COPD. It is wise for people with COPD to avoid cleaners that use ozone.

Electronic air cleaners

Electronic air cleaners use a range of technologies, such as UV light and ionization, to convert oxygen molecules into charged ions that deactivate pollution. This process is bipolar ionization (BPI). The deactivated particles fall to the floor or into an air filter.

BPI can create ozone, as well as harmful free radicals, making it less effective than air filtration.

Filter-based air cleaners

Filter-based air cleaners mechanically clean the air by pulling it in with a fan and then filtering out harmful particles with a physical filter. Most use one of two filters:

  • HEPA filters remove very small airborne particles, including dust, mold, and many allergens. They are ideal for people with allergies and for those trying to avoid common household irritants.
  • Carbon filters can remove volatile organic compounds, such as those from paints and some chemicals. They do not remove small particles such as dust and smoke.

A filter-based air cleaner that includes both a carbon and HEPA filter will remove the most pollution.

Air purifiers can remove irritating and harmful chemicals and pollution from the air. These often include cigarette smoke, a major trigger for COPD.

Air filtration reduces the presence of indoor air pollution, and some research suggests this may help ease COPD symptoms.

In a 2022 study, researchers recruited 116 participants with COPD. Half had sham filtration in their room, while the other half used high efficiency, filter-based air purifiers for 6 months. Researchers did not know which group was which when gathering data on outcomes.

At the end of the study, participants who used the indoor air filter had improvements in symptoms on the St. George’s Respiratory Questionnaire (SGRQ), though these improvements were not statistically significant. They used fewer rescue medications and had fewer COPD exacerbations.

This suggests that filtration may help improve some COPD symptoms.

Read about COPD.

The American Lung Association offers recommendations for choosing an indoor air filter. It suggests:

  • choosing an air filter that does not produce ozone, which is a harmful source of indoor air pollution
  • placing the air filter in the room where the most vulnerable members of the family spend the most time
  • choosing a filter with a MERV rating of at least 12, which will capture more indoor air pollutants, including smaller particles that can travel into the bloodstream

For the best results, people should choose air filters with the highest efficiency they can afford.

Taking care of the purifier

Each air purifier has different cleaning requirements, so read the manufacturer’s instructions. Some tips to keep the purifier running efficiently include:

  • changing the air filter at least as frequently as recommended by the manufacturer
  • following the manufacturer’s instructions for cleaning the air purifier and removing debris
  • positioning the air purifier in the room as instructed, which may include placing it in a specific location or with clearance around the unit

Placing the air purifier in the home

To get the greatest benefits from the air purifier, place it where the person with COPD spends the most time. It can be helpful to install multiple purifiers, with at least one in the bedroom.

Read about treating COPD exacerbations.

Some other strategies that can help reduce indoor air pollution include:

  • avoiding smoking or vaping in the home
  • using a dehumidifier to keep humidity levels lower than 50%, which can reduce mold and mildew and improve air quality
  • closing the windows if in an area with poor air quality
  • testing the home for radon, which can cause lung cancer
  • not burning wood in the home
  • getting rid of pests such as cockroaches and mice
  • avoiding heavy use of air fresheners and candles

Air purifiers may help keep the air in the home clean. They can be especially helpful when a person lives in a home with significant pollution, such as from secondhand smoke. It is important to choose the right air purifier and not use an air purifier as a replacement for standard COPD treatment.

A doctor can offer advice on other strategies for managing COPD symptoms. People whose symptoms get worse or do not respond to treatment should contact a doctor.