Smoking is a major cause of respiratory disease as it is harmful to the lungs, as well as other organs. Examples of the diseases include COPD, asthma, and bronchitis.

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This article explores some statistics about smoking, and the five main respiratory diseases that smoking can cause, including their prevalence, symptoms, and treatment for these conditions.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of long-term conditions that cause breathing difficulties.

How common

COPD is a common respiratory disease, affecting 174 million people and causing 3.2 million deaths worldwide in 2015.


Common symptoms of COPD include:

However, a person with COPD may experience a broad spectrum of symptoms, ranging from no symptoms at all to more severe cases with respiratory failure.

People should consult a doctor to receive a diagnosis and treatment based on their symptoms.


COPD is a lifelong condition. When left untreated, it is a major cause of death worldwide. However, with the right resources, it is manageable. The main goals of treatment are:

  • control symptoms
  • improve quality of life
  • minimize exacerbations
  • reduce mortality

Treatment plans will vary slightly between individuals. However, common medications involved in the treatment are:

People with COPD have an increased risk of respiratory infections exacerbating symptoms. Doctors, therefore, may recommend people with COPD receive vaccinations for the flu and COVID-19, where possible, each year.

Read more about COPD and COVID-19 vaccinations.

Chronic bronchitis often follows COPD. It is a chronic cough that persists for at least 3 months out of 2 years.

How common

Chronic bronchitis affects 3–7% of adults but 74% of people with COPD. It is most common in people who smoke or have exposure to smoke.


The main symptoms of chronic bronchitis are:


The main methods of pharmaceutical treatment for chronic bronchitis are as follows:

  • bronchodilators
  • glucocorticoids
  • antibiotic therapy
  • phosphodiesterase-4 inhibitors

Learn more about remedies for bronchitis and when to see a doctor.

Emphysema is a form of COPD that limits airflow and causes persistent respiratory symptoms.

How common

Emphysema has affected more than 3 million people in the United States.


It may take years before emphysema symptoms become noticeable. When they do, they generally include:


There is no cure for emphysema. However, the following treatments can help when managing symptoms:

Lung cancer, or bronchogenic carcinoma, is when tumors develop in the lungs’ alveoli or bronchi. Around 90% of lung cancer cases result from smoking.

How common

Approximately 225,000 people in the United States receive a lung cancer diagnosis every year, and the condition causes around 160,000 deaths yearly.


There are no specific signs or symptoms of lung cancer. Most people are unaware that they have the condition until the late stages.

Around 50–75% of people present with a cough. Direct symptoms can result from where the tumor is sitting in the lungs, for example, if it is pressing against a different body part.

Other symptoms include:


Treatment depends on the type and stage of cancer, such as:

  • Stage 1: Surgery may be an option for people at the start.
  • Stage 2–3: These stages will involve chemotherapy with radiotherapy.
  • Stage 4: The focus is more on alleviating symptoms and prolonging life.

A doctor can determine which stage of cancer a person has and provide a suitable treatment plan.

The longer people smoke, the greater their chance of developing respiratory diseases. However, quitting can have benefits at any point in life.

Quitting smoking can immediately improve the body’s condition. Research has found that within hours, people may find that:

  • blood pressure lowers
  • lung capacity increases
  • they cough less
  • they produce less phlegm

In the long term, quitting smoking reduces the risk of cancer and heart disease. Ultimately, people have a lower chance of developing respiratory diseases if they quit smoking.

How to quit?

Resources providing information to help people quit smoking are available from the CDC.

There are medications for easing away from smoking and reducing nicotine dependence. However, research from 2022 suggests that these may not work any better than a placebo. A person can discuss their options with a doctor.

Additionally, people in the United States can dial the following number for free support when quitting smoking: 1-800-QUIT-NOW (1-800-784-8669).

Read more for tips on giving up smoking.

Exposure to cigarette smoke in any capacity can have harmful consequences.

Secondhand smoke, or environmental tobacco smoke, still causes people to inhale the toxins from tobacco. As a result, secondhand smoking increases the risk of several diseases for non-smokers, including:

  • respiratory diseases
  • heart disease
  • cancer
  • stroke

According to the WHO, over 1.2 million non-smokers die from secondhand smoke yearly. That accounts for over one-eighth of tobacco-related deaths.

Learn more about the effects of smoking.

Other than smoking, causes of respiratory diseases can include infection and exposure to the following toxins:

A person should consult a doctor if they suspect they have had exposure to any of the above or any other toxins. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are essential for improved outcomes.

The outlook is considerably higher for people with respiratory diseases if they have stopped smoking.

Quitting can have benefits at any age. However, 2022 research shows that stopping smoking before age 40 reduces the risk of smoking-related death by up to 90%.

Smoking is a major cause of illness, including COPD, bronchitis, emphysema, lung cancer, and asthma. There is a range of symptoms and specific treatments depending on the type of respiratory disease a person develops.

However, quitting smoking also reduces the risk of a respiratory disease developing or worsening.