Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease - Causes 

Causes of COPD 

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There are several things that may increase your risk of developing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), many of which can be avoided.

Things you can change

You can change some of the things that make COPD more likely.


Smoking is the main cause of COPD. At least four out of five people who develop the disease are, or have been, smokers. The lining of the airways becomes inflamed and permanently damaged by smoking. This damage cannot be reversed. Around 10-25% of smokers develop COPD.

Passive smoking

Exposure to other people’s smoke increases the risk of COPD. 

Fumes and dust

Exposure to certain types of dust and chemicals at work, including grains, isocyanates, cadmium and coal, has been linked to the development of COPD, even in people who do not smoke. 

The risk of COPD is even higher if you breathe in dust or fumes in the workplace and you smoke.

Air pollution

According to some research, air pollution may be an additional risk factor for COPD. However, at the moment it is not conclusive and research is continuing.

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Things you cannot change

There are a few factors for COPD that you cannot change.

Having a brother or sister with severe COPD

A research study has shown that smokers who have brothers and sisters with severe COPD are at greater risk of developing the condition than smokers who do not.

Having a genetic tendency to COPD

There is a rare genetic tendency to develop COPD called alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency. This causes COPD in a small number of people (about 1%). Alpha-1-antitrypsin is a protein that protects your lungs. Without it, the lungs can be damaged by other enzymes that occur naturally in the body.

People who have an alpha-1-antitrypsin deficiency usually develop COPD at a younger age, often under 35.

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Page last reviewed: 11/09/2012

Next review due: 11/09/2014


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