Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a progressive condition that affects breathing. Quitting smoking is an effective way to reduce the risk of developing COPD.

COPD causes problems with the lungs and airways that worsen over time. It can lead to symptoms including a persistent cough, coughs with excess mucus, wheezing or whistling while breathing, and shortness of breath. People with COPD may also experience chest tightness and difficulty performing physical activity.

COPD results from long-term exposure to lung irritants, such as tobacco smoke. These irritants cause emphysema, a condition in which there is damage to the air sacs of the lungs that support breathing. Irritants can also cause chronic bronchitis or inflammation in the airways.

There is currently no cure for COPD. However, treatment can include a combination of lifestyle changes, medicines, or surgery.

Because COPD symptoms may worsen over time, people with COPD will require lifelong treatment to manage symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve their quality of life. Effective treatments can allow people with COPD to continue their daily activities.

This article discusses COPD risk factors and their prevention.

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The American Lung Association states that exposure to irritants that damage the lungs and airways can lead to COPD. These irritants cause emphysema and chronic bronchitis, which make up COPD.

Risk factors can be anything that increases the chances of a disease occurring. Risk factors for COPD might include living or working in environments that increase exposure to irritants or a biological vulnerability to damage to the lungs or airways.

Tobacco smoke is a significant factor in around 85–90% of COPD cases. Many of the chemicals in tobacco smoke can damage the lungs and airways and increase the risk of respiratory infections. Exposure to secondhand smoke can also increase the risk of COPD.

Smoking is the main risk factor for COPD, but many people will develop the condition without smoking. The World Health Organization (WHO) lists other risk factors that include:

Exposure to these risk factors makes it more likely that someone will develop COPD.

The most effective way of preventing COPD is quitting or never starting smoking.

Giving up smoking is challenging, but people can use many methods to make it easier. For example, some people use varenicline or nicotine replacement therapy to reduce cravings.

Quitting smoking may also involve lifestyle changes such as avoiding social settings that induce pressure to smoke, for example, going to bars with friends who smoke. People can take similar approaches to prevent exposure to secondhand smoke, which also increases COPD risk.

The National Health, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) recommends people join support groups to help with quitting smoking. Asking family members and friends for support might also help.

Additionally, the NHLBI suggests reducing exposure to other lung irritants that can contribute to COPD. For example, people who work in factories or warehouses that contain chemical fumes or dust should wear protective gear or change working environments, where possible.

People who develop COPD may follow these steps to prevent complications or slow disease progression. The WHO suggests regularly exercising to lower these risks in people with COPD. Exercise can increase lung functioning and improve breathing.

They also suggest getting vaccinated against pneumonia, influenza, and coronavirus. People with COPD are vulnerable to severe illness from respiratory infections and must take additional precautions.

People with COPD require lifelong treatment to manage symptoms, slow disease progression, and improve their quality of life. The disease typically starts with no signs or only mild symptoms. People may require some lifestyle changes in the early stages, including quitting smoking.

More intense treatments may be necessary as COPD symptoms worsen. For example, a doctor might prescribe bronchodilators to widen the airways and improve breathing. Some people with COPD could be eligible for surgery to remove some or all of a damaged lung in more severe cases.

Effective treatments can help people with COPD to manage their symptoms and continue their daily activities.

Anyone experiencing signs and symptoms of COPD should contact a doctor for a check-up. A doctor will use spirometry to test whether someone has COPD. Spirometry is a test of lung functioning.

Many people with COPD are unaware they have the condition or only recognize it when it becomes more severe. Being aware of COPD symptoms and consulting a doctor right away can increase the chances of an early diagnosis and better treatment.

COPD is a progressive condition that affects breathing. There is currently no cure for COPD, but people can take steps to reduce their risk of developing the condition.

Smoking is a major risk factor, and avoiding exposure to tobacco smoke will reduce the chances of developing COPD. Avoiding other lung irritants such as indoor air pollution or chemical fumes will also reduce COPD risk.

To learn more about COPD and access resources, please visit our dedicated hub.