Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a serious lung disease that can cause a person to experience breathing difficulties. Cigarette smoking can cause COPD and can seriously damage the lungs.

Around 16 million people in the United States are living with COPD. It is likely that millions more have the condition but have not received a diagnosis or treatment. Smoking is a major contributing factor to developing COPD. The prevalence of COPD for adults is 15.2% among current smokers. This figure drops to 7.6% among former smokers and just 2.8% among people who have never smoked.

Keep reading to learn more about COPD, the link between smoking and COPD, and why giving up smoking is important for anyone living this condition who smokes.

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COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It is an umbrella term for lung conditions that cause airflow restrictions and breathing problems. The two main types of COPD are bronchitis and emphysema.

If an individual has COPD, their symptoms may include:

COPD is a serious and progressive disease, meaning it gets worse over time. There is currently no cure, but treatments exist to help with symptoms and slow disease progression.

Learn more about COPD and its treatment options here.

Causes of COPD

Tobacco smoke is a key factor involved in developing COPD. Smoking contributes to around 85—90% of COPD cases in the U.S.

Cigarettes create more than 7,000 chemicals when they burn. This can lead a person who smokes to experience:

  • weakening of the lungs’ immunity, such as their response to infection
  • narrowing of air passages
  • inflammation and swelling
  • destruction of the lungs’ air sacs or alveoli

However, even individuals who do not smoke are at risk from COPD if exposed to air pollution, secondhand smoke, dust, fumes, and chemicals in the workplace or home.

Additionally, if someone has a genetic condition called alpha-1 deficiency or a history of respiratory infections, they are at an increased risk of developing COPD.

Cigarette smoking is the number one cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. It causes most cases of lung cancer and COPD.

Cigarette smoking causes sudden damage to the body. A puff of smoke contains thousands of toxic chemicals. When someone smokes, the inhaled fumes hit the lungs quickly and enter the bloodstream. Now containing toxic substances, the blood disperses to the rest of the body.

Tobacco smoke also contains carbon monoxide, which can displace oxygen in the blood. This means that the blood carries less oxygen. As a result, the body’s organs become deprived of oxygen as the blood circulates.

Another chemical found in cigarette smoke is acrolein. Acrolein can cause irreversible lung damage even in very small amounts.

Cigarettes may also contain bronchodilators. These chemicals allow the lungs’ airways to open up, meaning the lungs can increase the number of harmful chemicals they absorb.

Aside from releasing dangerous chemicals, smoking cigarettes can cause harm to the lungs in other ways. Smoking destroys the tiny hairs, or cilia, in the airways, which help keep the lungs clean. When these cilia disappear, an individual can develop a chronic cough, also called a “smoker’s cough.” If the individual continues to smoke, they can develop COPD, difficulty breathing, and could eventually die because of lack of air.

Smoking is an unhealthy habit for everyone, but it is particularly important that people who smoke and receive a COPD diagnosis quit and prevent further damage to the lungs.

If someone continues to smoke even after developing COPD, it worsens the disease and can trigger exacerbations or flare-ups. Exacerbations are a sudden worsening of symptoms that usually present as severe respiratory distress. These episodes can be life threatening and can further increase disease severity.

Yes, quitting smoking is critical. Although stopping smoking cannot undo previous damage done to the lungs, it can prevent further damage and increase a person’s quality of life.

When someone stops smoking, their body can better fight the disease or lung infection. As a result, lung function should improve, and symptoms should decrease. This may also mean that a person experiences fewer exacerbations.

Approximately 1–9 months after stopping smoking, people with COPD should find that their cough, sinus congestion, shortness of breath, and fatigue have improved. They should also feel better about their health and have more energy to do what they enjoy.

Learn more about what happens after a person quits smoking here.

For most people, the best way to prevent COPD is never to start smoking. However, if someone smokes, they should quit as soon as possible.

It is also important that people shield themselves from secondhand smoke, another potential factor that can cause COPD. Some steps people can take to reduce the amount of secondhand smoke they encounter might include making the home a smoke-free zone and avoiding public places where smoking is allowed freely.

Individuals who live or work in areas where the air may contain toxic pollutants should limit their exposure by reducing time outdoors and wearing masks if necessary. People should also use clean fuels and improve stoves to burn fuel more efficiently to reduce indoor air pollutants. Any omission should vent to the outside.

If possible, people should use air purifiers or cleaners to improve their air quality.

Quitting smoking is an important step in managing COPD, but people can find it challenging. However, there are medications and support available.

The first step is to speak with a doctor who can recommend proven methods to help a person quit smoking and manage their nicotine use. The doctor will likely prescribe dual therapy to include medication combined with nicotine replacement or behavioral health changes.

Nicotine replacement therapies include gums, patches, and lozenges that supply nicotine to the body but without the harmful chemicals that exist in cigarettes. These medications reduce the uncomfortable feelings people experience when they stop smoking and increase the likelihood of successfully quitting.

Doctors may also prescribe other medications called bupropion and varenicline (Chantix). These drugs work to reduce cravings and help a person combat withdrawal symptoms when trying to stop smoking.

People can call the government’s Quit Now hotline at 1-800-QUIT-NOW for free information and support.

COPD is a serious lung disease that doctors associate with smoking. If someone with COPD continues to smoke, it can worsen the disease and increase their risk of exacerbations, which are periods of sudden worsening of symptoms.

The best way to prevent COPD or avoid worsening symptoms is to quit smoking. Medications and other support are available to help people quit smoking and manage their nicotine use. Individuals ready to stop smoking should speak with their doctor for help and advice.