A chronic, debilitating lung condition, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) is the fourth leading cause of death among Americans, occurring most often in people who smoke or who have a history of smoking. Typically, COPD develops over time as tobacco smoke and chemicals slowly damage lung tissues, changing the way the lungs work and making it harder to breathe.
But while it may be tempting to think of COPD as a “smoker’s disease,” research shows as many as 25% of COPD cases occur in people who have never smoked. That means that in these patients, other important risk factors are at play.
At California Lung Associates, our team uses advanced techniques to diagnose and treat COPD in smokers and nonsmokers. Learning to recognize non-smoking risk factors for COPD helps patients get treatment as early as possible.
5 causes of COPD in non-smokers
It’s true that non-smokers have a lower risk of developing COPD than people with a current or past history of smoking. But just because you’ve never smoked, that doesn’t mean you won’t get COPD. These are the non-smoking risk factors you should know about.
#1: Exposure to secondhand smoke
Even if you don’t smoke, breathing in smoke fumes from another smoker (secondhand smoke) can damage your lungs. Secondhand smoke is also associated with worse outcomes in people diagnosed with COPD.
While current exposure to secondhand smoke can increase your risk of COPD, childhood exposure is also critical. In fact, one study found that secondhand smoke exposure during childhood increased the risk of death from COPD in adulthood.
#2: Exposure to other airborne pollutants
COPD can also be caused by long-term exposure to air pollutants, including smoke and fumes from cooking fires or other fuels used for heating, transportation, or other needs. You can also develop COPD from regular exposure to fumes from chemicals or other substances at your workplace.
Research shows COPD is also more common among people with asthma (called asthma-COPD overlap syndrome or ACOS), which means that regardless of your smoking history, if you have asthma, your risk of COPD is higher, as well. One study found COPD risk may be even higher among people with active asthma — that is, asthma that routinely causes symptoms and flare-ups.
About 5% of people with COPD have a genetic condition called alpha-1 antitrypsin deficiency that makes them more prone to lung diseases, including COPD. Alpha-1 antitrypsin helps protect the lungs and prevent lung damage. People who have too little of this protein increases the risk of COPD, along with other lung problems.
#5: Lung development issues
Recent research shows that people with relatively small airways may also be at an increased risk for developing COPD, even if they’ve never smoked. According to that study, abnormal lung development may take a direct toll on lung capacity and function, dramatically increasing COPD risk in older never-smokers.
Lung development is more likely to be stunted in people who:
- Had a low birthweight
- Had mothers who smoked during pregnancy
- Were exposed to tobacco during childhood
- Have a childhood history of respiratory infections
Discussing your lifetime medical history with your doctor can help identify if you might have an increased risk of developing COPD.
At California Lung Associates, we tailor COPD treatment to each patient’s unique needs, based on their symptoms, their medical history, and other factors. Most patients benefit from inhaled medication or oral medications to reduce airway inflammation and improve breathing. Oxygen therapy can also be helpful in patients who need more support.
If you have any breathing problems or other symptoms like coughing or wheezing, don’t ignore them. Early diagnosis is the key to managing COPD symptoms and slowing down the progression of the disease. To schedule your lung evaluation, call California Lung Associates today, and learn how our team can help.